3D printers are great. Never in the history of man has it been easier to make sculptures out of bubble bath foam, novelty armageddon coffee tables or sexy celebrity skeletons. What a time to be alive.
It’s fair to say that, while 3D printing has already made some incredible things credible - replacement jaw bones for cancer patients, robotic hands for scientific experiments, for example - the meat of of what today’s 3D printers produce (including actual meat) is skewed towards the ‘interesting’, the novel, and the weird, rather than the life-changingly practical.
But that isn’t the dream. And while bioprinting is already promising replacement organs for human transplantation that come freshly piped out of a machine, a team at Glasgow University are going one step further - by ‘printing’ medicine, vials and all.
Recipe for a Molecule
“Imagine you’ve got a robot,” says professor Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at Glasgow and TED speaker. “The robot has a recipe [for a molecule]. It will then create the vessel in which the recipe is made, and then create the recipe in the vessel. So, there’s a physical object that’s made, [a bit like] a cocktail glass, and then the cocktail would be made by adding in the different [ingredients]. So, it’s not only like a digital bartender, but it makes the glass as well.”
Cronin and his team’s idea is essentially to cut out the costly production and distribution side of getting medicine to people who need it. With robots handling production of medicine at the molecular level and encrypted blueprints ensuring security, the goal is to rapidly deliver drugs to parts of the world that need them most, either to combat general shortages or to respond to sudden outbreaks of disease.
But robotic drug production will solve more problems for big pharma than ease of distribution.
“[Drug companies have] two key problems today,” Cronin says. “The first is drug counterfeiting. In the developing world, where many drugs are made, what can happen is that when the active ingredient runs out, people just add fake drug or placebos to the pill, and then sell that pill [as the real] drug. It’s a bit like fabricating a DVD or CD. But unlike fabricating a CD or DVD, the person doesn’t get the [product] at all - they get something fake. So, the person thinks they are taking anti-malaria tablets, and actually they’ve taken something which in the best case is a placebo, but in the worst case is a poison. That’s not very good for the drug company, that’s not very good for the health outcomes of the individual.
“The second point is that drug companies now only make a fraction of the patents that they have available for making drugs, because manufacturing facilities are very expensive. So, [imagine] there’s one manufacturing facility in Scotland that makes all the particular drugs for one class of illness. If an asteroid hit that facility tonight, all the people with that illness would have no drugs. That’s a very critical issue.”
The comparison with CDs and DVDs brings up an obvious question, however. In a world where medicine is digitized, how do you stop your new cancer drug appearing on The Pirate Bay the day after you finish writing up the recipe? If enough people are already committed enough to sharing episodes of Game of Thrones mere hours after the credits roll on HBO, how do you stop people who - perhaps quite nobly - believe that if new TV episodes should be shared, lifesaving medicines should definitely be freed up for anyone with access to one of Cronin’s devices and a WiFi connection?
“It’s not the same, because [robotically-created medicine uses] a type of physical encryption,” says Cronin. “The idea is a bit like production of malt whiskey: some people believe that stills have a certain physical shape which creates the right taste. If you can hide the shape - the watermark, if you like - of your reactor, it would be very hard for the person who’s trying to copy it without cracking that physical code. It’s not just about digital code.
“But what you’re talking about is a protection [problem] in the first world. What I’m talking about is overcoming a massive health and safety issue in the second and third world. Drug counterfeiting costs the world half a trillion dollars a year in direct losses and negative consequences to people taking the fake products, and that’s all because of how we make drugs today.”
(Relative) ease of production also brings up another intuitively obvious problem. Because for everyone who uses a 3D printer to print their own Hodor doorstopper, there’s someone out there using the technology for more unsavoury purposes, like producing the world’s first 3D-printed, semi-automatic firearm. With drugs already widely available for purchase through dark web markets, what does chemical ‘printing’ mean for a shadier breed of chemist with an interest in producing narcotics? If you could do away with the risk of smuggling illegal drugs through customs by fabricating them in your spare room, what does that mean for the War on Drugs?
For Cronin, it’s a scenario that’s unlikely - and focusing on such a negative outcome is to miss much, much wider positives.
“I don’t think [using robots to create drugs] will be the end of drug prohibition,” he says. “I mean, if someone went to a local hardware store right now, they could buy the chemicals and the equipment to make all sorts of drugs. It would take them ages, and they’d get in trouble, and it would still be illegal. And, in the end, they wouldn’t have a pure substance that they should trust anyone to take. The reason why we trust the pharma companies is that they produce drugs to a very high standard of purity. If one was to go and take this device into their garage and hack it to make a recreational drug, there would be a very high probability that that individual was actually giving themselves a poison. You don’t go to B&Q and buy some paintstripper and creosote and drink it thinking you might get a buzz, because you think, ‘No, I don’t want to die’.
“Will [this technology] increase access to [illegal] drugs? No, it will not change anything fundamentally from what is possible illegally now. But what it aims to do is dramatically lower the cost of drug manufacturing and open up access to the world to medicine - it would allow the entire inventory of known drugs to be made again, even if they are ‘out of print’, i.e. not being made today in a big manufacturing facility. [But even if it could], the thought experiment is: how many millions of people suffer from drugs problems? And how many billions of people die because they have no medicine?”
A Planet-Sized Lab
If not street drugs and piracy, then, what will chemical robotics mean for future chemists and medicine research? Cronin’s answer is a grand networking of expertise: a global research collaboration between chemists and pharmaceutical companies to effectively bring every far-flung team of scientists together into a giant, planet-sized lab.
“I see... chemists collaborating around the world to share recipes to look for new drugs for curing cancer or Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Right now, lots of chemists make molecules in their labs, but they don’t have a very good way of ensuring these are reproducible so these compounds are easily available to the drug companies so they can investigate them. And no-one has a common standard.
“The nice thing right now is that people can write code in the digital world, and that code can be tested universally. You know, I could write an app, release on the Apple App Store and you could download it on your iPhone and play with the app. If we could do the same thing with molecules, and drug companies are going to test them against Alzheimer’s, diabetes and so on, this approach might radically change the way we explore drug discovery.”
Lee Cronin is Regius Chair of Chemistry in the chemistry department at the University of Glasgow.