This year’s January, chemistry professor Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow was picked by Science Council as one of the 100 leading practicing scientists in the UK. He was praised for being a “young rising star seeking to understand and control self-assembly and self-organisation in chemistry.” However, this top 100 ranking is not what the world knows him for, since his 3D printed drugs project has made him a one-to-watch. Time to tell you all about this highly innovating, but controversial project.
In 2012, 39-year-old professor Cronin was suddenly in the spotlight because of his ambitious 3D Chemputer project. As ‘Chemputer’ is an amalgamation of ‘chemistry’ and ‘computer’, you can probably imagine the direction of this project. Cronin aims to create a system where people can use an app or website to easily download a file and ‘ink’ for a medicine, after which they will be able to print out the drug at home, using a 3D printer. He’s quite ambitious about it, as the ‘young rising star’ has told The Guardian: “What Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.”
This system will probably not be used in the next couple of years. Lee Cronin has spoken to different media about “ten to fiveteen years” or “five to ten years” and the BBC even reports that Cronin’s team predicts “the technique will be used by pharmaceutical firms within five years, and by the public within 20.” However, when all of this will be possible, prescription patients will be able to go to an online pharmacy and purchase their own blueprint and chemical ink. It will be made using a specific software and a 3D molecular printer, after which the whole package is sent to the patient’s home. Cronin’s team is currently working on this idea with a £1,200 prototype printer.
To VICE, Cronin explains about the benefits of this approach to medication. He thinks it could allow us to deploy drugs more widely as well as he thinks the software becomes the value, not the chemical. Counterfeit drugs could therefore become part of the past and his project could even open a way for personal medicine. He explains personal medicine as creating a biological machine that uses someone’s genome to work out what disease a person is going to get as a function of nature plus nurture. In order to cure it, a drug could easily be printed out. Of course, the dosage of prescription drugs will be dependent on the needs of a specific person and they will therefore be tailored to each person.
This also implicates that we will not have to go to pharmacies to get prescription drugs anymore. When a person is too sick to go to a shop, a printer could do the job. In addition to this benefit, drugs will even become cheaper and so third-world countries will have better access to medication. And what will the pharmaceutical industry be doing instead of selling physical medicine (and aside from creating new types of drugs)? They will be creating and selling the right files to patients so they can 3D print their own drugs at home.
But – there ís a ‘but’ – this invention also meets some criticism, of which the most serious comments come from Mike Power. He has written a book called Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High. As you can probably imagine, using 3D printing technology to create medical drugs can be misused in a way that DIY chemists might use the technique to create their own MDMA, LSD and cocaine. If you think about this a bit more, there will also be a brighter side to this disadvantage. Because, say, recreational drug users will not be in need of a dealer anymore and will therefore not be dependent on untested and potentially harmful street drugs. Or in the words of VICE: in the future, your drug dealer will be a printer.
But on the other hand: as the manufacturing process of drugs will shift from dark, illustrious factories to digital files, there can – and will – be errors with these files. As Power points out, it’s comparable to illegally downloading music. In the world of illegal hard drugs there will not be any regulation – because it’s illegal – which means you’ll never know whether the quality of the ‘drug file’ will be proper or not. Just like music downloads there is a possibility of downloading a bad file. However, there is a difference between the two examples and that is that downloading a bad song is only a disappointment, while downloading a bad drug file could potentially be deadly. As a solution to this issue lawmakers could make hard drugs legal altogether, in order to regulate the quality, but would that be a good thing to society?
All in all, Cronin’s project has a lot of clear advantages but there is also enough to think about to the contrary. However, obviously Cronin already knows all about it, as he points out in VICE that “a debate needs to be had.” Thought provoking stuff, that’s for sure.
Image credits – first and second image: Murdo Macleod. Third image: Shorelander, Wikipedia.