"Printing" pharmaceuticals with a 3D printer

A Nature Chemistry paper by researchers from the University of Glasgow describes a process for "printing" pharmaceutical compounds from various feedstocks, and supposes a future in which we have diagnosis/medication manufacturies at home. The process uses an off-the-shelf 3D printer technology to assemble pre-filled "vessels" in ways that create the desired chemical reaction in order to produce medicines. It's a scaled-down version of the industrial process used to manufacture drugs in bulk, and the paper's principal, Prof Lee Cronin, calls it "reactionware." From the BBC:

"We can fabricate these reactionware vessels using a 3D printer in a relatively short time. Even the most complicated vessels we've built have only take a few hours.

"By making the vessel itself part of the reaction process, the distinction between the reactor and the reaction becomes very hazy. It's a new way for chemists to think, and it gives us very specific control over reactions because we can continually refine the design of our vessels as required.

"For example, our initial reactionware designs allowed us to synthesize three previously unreported compounds and dictate the outcome of a fourth reaction solely by altering the chemical composition of the reactor."

...Prof Cronin added: "3D printers are becoming increasingly common and affordable. It's entirely possible that, in the future, we could see chemical engineering technology which is prohibitively expensive today filter down to laboratories and small commercial enterprises.

"Even more importantly, we could use 3D printers to revolutionise access to health care in the developing world, allowing diagnosis and treatment to happen in a much more efficient and economical way than is possible now.

"We could even see 3D printers reach into homes and become fabricators of domestic items, including medications. Perhaps with the introduction of carefully-controlled software 'apps', similar to the ones available from Apple, we could see consumers have access to a personal drug designer they could use at home to create the medication they need."

'DIY drugstores' in development by Glasgow University researchers


  1. Oh man I would soooo make my own Ecstasy. I have Shulgin’s recipe. Or how about 2-CB? And finally: I wouldn’t have to score Vicodin in the park.

    Will this all occur on an L-5 space city? Will we have to wash our homemade miracle drugs down with liquefied soylent green? Will it be 115 degrees in January the day we first get these machines in our “kitchens”? 

  2. Yay for localised production!!!
    3D printers are getting more incredible all the time. Say good bye to retail stores and industry and traditional capitalism.
    Say hello to new means of production and economic change without soviet uniformity!! Yay!

  3. Chemistry is pretty fundamental and this seems to be a quite radically new tool; sounds like something of a revolution in the offing.

    Also, yay for all the recreational drugs we’ll be able to invent.

    Perhaps with the introduction of carefully-controlled software ‘apps’, similar to the ones available from Apple, we could see consumers have access to a ersonal drug designer they could use at home to create the medication they need.

    Heh, carefully-controlled software that’ll be hacked and patched within hours ; )

    1. I think it’d be more likely the government would either shut it down for private use or regulate the hell out of it for the various reasons some posters listed above.  You know that whole “war” on drugs thing and all.

      1. And it will be still used, and now it can be downloaded from the Internet. Drug Against Wars, meet the Pirate Bay.

  4. I look forward to the exciting, new forms of Digital Rights Management!

    Seriously, you think this thing would ever fly? The *AA’s screamed bloody murder when home taping devices were introduced. Could you imagine the reaction of a truly powerful industry? Geeze, it’s almost impossible to buy an eBook that isn’t crippled by DRM. In at least one state you can’t even buy chemistry-set glassware without registering with the government.

    Between the neo-Prudes and the “rights holders,” this technology would never be allowed for, you know, people.

    1. Huh?
      What you need to see is that many of those books are available as free, illegal ebooks anyway. And in a case like this is not going to be entertainment only, this has real, powerful consequences, that are going to happen in any case, just like ebooks.

  5. Imagine a smaller one of these mounted inside the body, with a sensor system designed to administer the precise mixture of a compound in real time.

  6. Before everyone starts drinking the kool aid, they should understand some basic chemistry.
    This is some incredibly cool tech for building specialised reactors. For novell drug synthesis and stuff like solid-phase combinatorial chemistry, this technique is revolutionary.

    It’s not going to work as a “DIY medicine lab”. It’d be a complete waste to even try to use it to knock up a bit of asprin when you’ve got a hangover.
    The printer ‘inks’ will need to include all the reagents. For medicines, this would be a bit more than CMYK pigments. The number of reagents would vastly outnumber the number of medicines that could be produced. 

    Also, this is only going to work for some specialised reactions. There’s a reason most chemical plants have thick-walled pressurised vessels, vacuum pumps, steam lines and heating systems. You can’t make everything under ambient conditions and I wouldn’t trust a 3D printed reactor to survive very high/low pressures.

    You also need some sophisticated analysis equipment to make sure the reaction worked and that any dangerous impurities have been removed before you even think about swallowing the product! Not to mention all the hazardous (flammable, corrosive, toxic, sensitising, carcinogenic) waste that needs to be disposed of safely (and the far greater waste produced when trying to make portion-sized syntheses).

    Much of practical chemistry is analogous to cookery, so treat this as you would treat the announcement of 3D printed cookware. It’d be great for Heston Blumental’s novel cuisine but your standard cooker, pots & pans are going to be a lot more useful for everyday cooking.

  7. As a chemist, I feel that this is horribly irresponsible reporting, or I am missing something here.  It just cries of a press release overselling currently-precedented technology in order to drum up funds, when knowledgeable VC and granting agents failed.

    Automated reaction systems already exist, and are definitely not going to be generating pharmaceutical reagents in peoples homes anytime soon, for a multitude of reasons: number of reagents necessary, complicated conditions, purification!

    Why would you want to store the 1000’s of reagents necessary to generate 100 pharmaceutical agents when you could just store the desired compounds in the first place?  Customized, personalized combinatorial generation of active pharmaceutical agents is not how medicine, or drug discovery works.  Research, yes, but the success rate of a molecule becoming a drug is far, far, far below 1%.

    I can’t even imagine a reality where this is an efficient, practical solution, short of the Star Trek replicator.  So perhaps it is just one step closer to the replicator, but the only new or novel aspect of this is marketing towards the home user versus laboratories.

    Or maybe I’m missing something.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with fictional extrapolations of current technology in order to drum up interest and excitement in science.

    1. Does “customized, personalized combinatorial generation of active pharmaceutical agents” mean remixing psychopharmaceuticals (legal, illegal, or unclassified) at a level achievable by a careful amateur with close knowledge of the compounds being manipulated and a decent working knowledge of chemistry?

      Cause if so (and I honestly have no idea), I think it’d see a lot more, and more radical, use than you might be envisioning. You have no idea what I’d do to get a significantly more-perfect stimulant/nootropic effect in a single compound I could produce at home. Also, more finely-tuned mood-balancers.

      1. There are very few scaffolds where this is realistic (i.e. Shulgin’s two books), where modulating specific appendages to a core that is a neurotropic pharmacophore can generate a wide range in activities, all of which are neurologically active.  In other words, the core of the molecule points to brain activity, the appendage modulates that activity.

        The downside is, controlling the activity is nothing like tuning a guitar, but more like pin the tail on the donkey.  Trends between structure and activity can be rationalized somewhat after the data is collected, but is wildly unpredictable beforehand.For the vast, vast majority of active pharmaceuticals, there is a reason the attrition rate in clinical trials is so goddamn high; toxicity is nearly impossible to predict.  Small changes in the molecule will cause different metabolic pathways, new compounds generated in vivo, which may be active with entirely unpredictable activity.Related to this issue:  there’s a famous example where kids were designing a street drug, and ended up giving each other Parkinson’s.

  8. I don’t think it’d be that cool or efficient or cost-saving an idea for your average American family that can just run down to the big chain drug store and get the garden variety meds that they want at a decent price.  But it could be awesome for small independent pharmacies, and for people who take very exotic drugs that it’s hard to get your local pharmacy to stock (like anti-rejection drugs for transplant patients and niche drugs for very rare conditions), and especially awesome for other places in the world where not every pharmacy has access to the same cheap easy distribution system as we’re used to here.  A pharmacy in the back of a general store in Mali isn’t going to be able to afford to get you drugs from every maker for every condition very quickly or cheaply if at all.  With this concept, the local doctor could prescribe what they really want to prescribe and not have to worry about the patient actually not being able to get any of that drug in town. 

    It could also be really nifty for producing drugs that aren’t commercially viable.  It’s not in a big drug company’s best interest to produce a perfect product for treating something a teeny tiny fraction of the population has.  So even if they run across something that might be promising for treating that condition, it’s not going to get a ton of research funding, and it’s less likely to get actually manufactured and bottled and sold and shipped.  The small printing concept might allow for making those drugs more viable.  Smaller labs and smaller producers could make small money making them or selling the formula to people or small producers to print them on their own. 

  9. As @boingboing-9391235f66f16a637186cd09110e1672:disqus and @boingboing-615fa448160d3132859fb27667fdfd26:disqus have already pointed out, this is another example of an academic press release which has been over-promoted into something it really isn’t.  It’s an excellent research tool, but nothing more than that.  So for Prof. Cronin to say that:

    Perhaps with the introduction of carefully-controlled software ‘apps’, similar to the ones available from Apple, we could see consumers have access to a personal drug designer they could use at home to create the medication they need.

    is a bit disingenuous (I rather suspect Cronin’s closing comment was elicited to give an otherwise unremarkable press release some media spin, which appears to have worked).  Let’s face it, just the commercial, regulatory and legal issues associated with basically providing a largely uneducated public with the easy means for mass production of pharmaceutical-grade compounds would sink any such venture from the outset.

  10. This is what the ‘war on drugs’ was for – so when the time came, there’d be a couple million dedicated guns and badges serving warrants/C&D’s for the newly merged DEA/BigPharma complex.

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