Posted: Tue, October 23, 2012 | By: Nikki Olson
Novel techniques in 3D printing technology simplify the production of drugs, enabling home design and synthesis of pharmaceuticals.
Professor Lee Cronin, Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and his team have built what they call “reactionware”, “special vessels for chemical reactions which are made from a polymer gel”. These vessels are distinct from laboratory vessels such as beakers because in addition to housing chemical reactions, they are part of the chemical reaction itself. Chemicals are simply added to the polymer gel and 3D printed into the matrix. For instance, materials such as carbon could be printed into a vessel matrix to make the chamber itself conductive. More sophisticated chambers could contain mazes of chemical components in sequence, creating individual units that serve as multistage reaction chambers.
Vessels that have chemicals built in to drive the reaction have long been used in large-scale chemical engineering. 3D printing technology makes these technologies feasible at the laboratory scale, as well as enables scientists to more readily experiment with reaction chamber techniques. Such experimentation, argues Cronin, will invariably lead to the refinement of chamber processes, as well as novel means to utilize reaction chambers in production. In addition, chamber technology will enable production of compounds previously yet to be synthesized. For instance, Cronin and his team have used reactionwear for synthesis of the previously unreported organic heterocyclic compound C21H17BrN2O. Cronin writes:
“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”.
There are a number of implications of reactionware for research scientists and businesses, including the ability to create novel industrial products, such as detergents and pigments. Reactionware also opens the door to personalized chemical products such as medicines, which could include on-demand printing of prescriptions tailored to individual needs.
Cronin and his team envision a day when production of pharmaceuticals for the average consumer could be as simple printing off a polymer chamber, using purchased “ink”(polymer solution mixed with other chemicals), and then putting the subsequent matrix in the microwave to produce the drug. Cronin puts forth 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.”
But the most significant implication of reactionware has to do with how it simplifies both the laboratory and chemical creation process – in particular, for individuals outside of industry. Using 3D printing technology and CAD software, miniature, simplified laboratories can be created, and thus chemical creation becomes more accessible to those outside formal laboratory settings. One use of major interest here being individually directed drug design and production.
The creation of ready-made CAD files will enable individuals without specialized knowledge to print off reactionware designed for drug creation. The individual would follow simple instructions, which could involve the addition of easy to access chemicals, the use of custom electrodes, as well as safe and simple distillation procedures. The ability to simplify drug creation in such a way for non-experts/those without laboratory skills creates a novel kind of accessibility to chemical creation.
For those with DIY attitudes, this technology opens the door to personal drug synthesis for treating illness, as well as experimentation and augmentation – creating novel drugs for these purposes, and tailoring them to their individual desires.
Concerns Regarding Safety
Beyond the possibility of software and/or hardware malfunction, as well as injuries resulting from mishandling of dangerous chemicals etc., DIY drug production carries with it challenges to the efficacy of the medical system in responding to drug complications. Although home pharmaceutical laboratories have existed for a long time, drug production and consumption has centered on previously synthesized, and well-understood drugs. The relative uniformity and consistency has enabled the medical community to be effective in treating patients experiencing complications from personal decisions regarding drugs. Breaking down the barriers to design and production of drugs will invariably present novel challenges for medical professionals. The problems inherent for the health care system resemble those of medical tourism, where physicians are faced with managing the outcome of a treatment that may be poorly understood, and for which there is no standard protocol or medicine on hand.
The use of 3D technology to assist in drug production will be near impossible to regulate. Most chemicals required for nootropic drugs are already easy to access, and design software, as well as the unique capabilities of reactionware, will make easier the creation of functional analogues to scheduled substances.
Refinement of drug synthesis processes via reactionware will facilitate the creation of novel compounds with the characteristics of scheduled substances, as well as circumvent the need to obtain less accessible compounds. Also, legislation such as the “Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005” (an act regulating the purchase of pseudoephedrine) will become less effective in preventing the production of illicit substances, since more and more, those wishing to consume such substances would be able to create them themselves, only purchasing small amounts of precursor substances. Attempts to regulate the sharing of CAD designs and instructions will also be ineffective. Regulatory agencies might attempt forcing central sharing hubs of CAD designs and instructions to shut down; however, exchange of this type of information is easily done over P2P anonymous networks, using decentralized currencies such as Bitcoin (methods used by online drug purchasing hub Silkroad). In addition, the printing hardware itself requires no special parts and is easy to obtain. Cronin and his team, for instance, are using a modified, commercially available, 3D printer.
Attitudes Going Forward
It’s easy to identify the negative potentials here, and point out that such a technology will invariably be a nightmare for medical and law enforcement communities, as well as aggravate addictions, cause irreversible pathologies, and serious injury. But there are notable positive implications as well. In the realm of nootropics, individuals will gain easier access to present compounds they feel improve their subjective well-being and performance, as well as be able to personalize, improve upon, and create novel compounds to those ends.
For those enthusiastic to embrace the era of DIY nootropics, Cronin and his team’s invention may indicate a need to rise to the challenge of furthering one’s knowledge of health and medicine etc. so as to effectively leverage the novel opportunities the technology creates. This is an attitude prevalent in DIY communities more generally, which emphasize self-directed study and perpetual learning for the sake of personal improvement. It’s difficult to predict how many will leverage Cronin’s innovation for the ends discussed in this article – to most, DIY drugs will be considered a highly dangerous activity, and justifiably so. Nevertheless, it seems clear that effectively utilizing reactionware could yield dramatic improvement in one’s biological functioning and subjective experience.
Watch a video of Cronin and his team demonstrating reactionware HERE.
This article was first published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, here