Lee Cronin is a Glasgow University professor and self-described “disruptive scientist.” A few years ago he became widely known for his research on molecule printers, especially through a TED Talk called “Print your own medicine.” The idea: if we can print complex molecules, we will eventually have home printers for pharmaceuticals. While this reality is probably still a hundred years off, Cronin’s research will probably revolutionize drug manufacturing soon.

Lee Cronin talks to the editor of Disruptive, June 2015

3D printing (also known as “additive manufacturing”) is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. Basically, a robot reads a digital model and lays down layers of some material until the object is created. If you want to know more, Mashable has an easy video on 3D printing and its diverse applications.

What Cronin’s lab did was use 3D printing technology to basically “regularize the chemistry set,” as he said in a recent interview with Disruptive. Contrary to popular understanding, his lab isn’t using 3D printers to print molecules. Instead, they are using the cheap robotic architecture and software of 3D printing to make a device that standardizes chemical reactions and makes the whole process of drug creation more efficient.

There are three components of the process Cronin is innovating: hardware, software, and chemical reagents they call “inks.” The software is a code that tells a 3D printer what type of vessel (or “reactor”) to create, then the device adds inks in the right places and order. Nearly all commercial drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (along with widely available agents like vegetable oil and paraffin), so as Cronin explained to the Guardian, “with a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule.”

Cronin’s team started out studying how a relatively simple drug like ibuprofen can be successfully produced in their “chemputer.” Now they are working with a lab in Beijing to see if the codes they’ve developed in Glasgow will successfully recreate the same molecules. As Cronin explains, this research is about building a new concept for how we make molecules in the digital age.

Cronin hopes that his research will accomplish three things. First, by inventing a more complex way to make molecules, he plans to discover new drugs. Next, the 3D printing architecture will allow for the use of artificial intelligence to optimize molecule creation, finding the most efficient way to manufacture a given drug. Finally, when they know the optimal code, they will bring the technology to manufacturing. Through this process of “apping” molecule creation, Cronin hopes to make medicine cheaper and more available.

Cronin acknowledges that the headline-worthy concept of printing medicine at home will pose a problem for regulators. But he also says that a world where anyone can make their own pharmaceuticals is probably “100 years from now.” In his lifetime, he hopes to discover new molecules using this system and develop new technologies for drug discovery and manufacturing. The first impact will be that drug companies can make molecules more cheaply and securely within their premises. Eventually, instead of making medicine at home, the drive will be to use this technology to make drugs more tailored to individual pathogens and genomes.

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