Printing painkillers

1 Sep

If it’s digital, it can be uploaded, downloaded, shared, edited and embellished. With advances in 3D printing technology, internet accessibility may soon apply to physical items too, including over-the-counter drugs.

3D printers have existed since 2003, and are already in mainstream use for the production of industrial and medical components. Similar to a regular inkjet machine, 3D printers follow digital instructions to produce a physical copy of an item. This is done by precise layering of materials such as plaster or plastic to build up a 3D structure. Demonstrations of the technology have seen 3D scans taken of various items (including an Academy Award statuette and some particularly tasteful gargoyle figurines), then replication of those items in various materials.

There’s more to 3D printing than just copying trinkets though. The potential to perform pre-programmed chemical reactions could turn home offices into small-scale laboratories.

Recent work at the University of Glasgow has demonstrated the capacity of relatively affordable 3D printers to act as tools for performing chemistry. Reaction vessels were ‘printed’ in layers of quick-setting bathroom sealant, and the chemicals required for the desired reaction were ‘printed’ into those vessels. By preparing a digital blueprint for, for example, the production of paracetamol tablets, a specialised chemistry set could be printed out, and a choreographed reaction performed with minimal human input required. The end product would be freshly produced painkillers, essentially downloaded from the internet.

The trials of this technology were carried out using a commercially available 3D printer that cost around US$2000. For that sum of money, and the additional cost of buying reaction ‘recipes’, any household could become capable of producing their own non-prescription medication.

Before this use of the technology becomes commercial, issues of user safety need to be addressed. A printed chemistry set would have to be impossible to adapt for illegal uses; it’s not hard to imagine digital recipes for preparing illicit drugs being shared online. The reactions that could be performed would be limited by the availability and safety of the chemical ingredients. Despite these hurdles, 3D printing and desk-top chemistry might be the next advancement in bringing goods and services into homes.

 

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One Response to “Printing painkillers”

  1. Chris September 1, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    I think “rapid prototypers” as 3d printers used to be known have actually been around since the ’80s

    Also your last paragraph strongly reminded me of “the coming war on general purpose computation”
    http://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html

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