Earlier, I had written about the coming revolution of 3D printing (“The Revolution Will Be Printed”) in which I surmised a number of considerations regarding 3D printing – among them:
* As hardware costs drop (which inevitably they will) 3D printing equipment will become more commonplace;
* 3D Printers will likely empower the average consumer to make their own items, ranging from toys and gadgets to replacement parts for their common household items;
* the possibility of 3D Printer Cooperatives – that is, consumers coming together – will also become likely as consumers can pool their resources to purchase and create more extensive items going beyond just common household items;
* the economy is going to change as a result of 3D printing.
I still stand by my discussions and predictions – and now note that a new wrinkle has been added: applying 3D printing toward pharmaceutical development.
Nikki Olsen, a writer for the IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) recently reported on a new and (explosively) overlooked development:
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.
So what? A bunch of chemists are using 3D technology to build some reaction chambers and other fancy bottles and tubes used in chemistry. Big deal.
Actually, it’s much, much more than that:
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”.
Whoops; there goes the pharmaceutical industry.
As Olsen reports:
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.
Okay, so let’s get this right: we’re looking at the creation of an entirely new sub-industry: the establishment of polymers specifically refined to interact with 3D printers to create specified drugs / pharmaceuticals. This could be a globally based industry, whereby subscribers could, through credit card or PayPal, order their polymers and have them mailed to their doorstop into their waiting 3D Printer and voila! here’s Aunt Gertie’s prescription for her migraines or cancer treatment.
And why stop there?
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.
So now we’re potentially talking about several new developments:
* Chemical ‘moonshiners’: a whole new underground industry as we can expect the pharmaceutical industry to raise high holy hell about this development (and probably, as we read this, their lobbyists are quietly lining up outside various elected officials to discuss this development);
* As a side development, we could see new drug dependencies arise from 3D printers. Think crack was bad? Imagine the potential for new designer drugs geared to ‘capture’ clients in new and potentially dangerous ways;
* As history has shown, it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to put the genie back into the bottle. Likely, this new form of 3D printing will grow rapidly – quietly at first – but will soon appear in odd places, such as off shore industrial complexes or third world countries with cheap labor as the profit potential for the regular pharmaceutical industrial complex is too great to be ignored.
* As with any new technology, unexpected uses and individuals will get involved – and with that, the 3D Printing technology will start appearing in places not fully monitored or regulated. After all, how hard would it be to ‘relocate’ a 3D printer or two, or a dozen out of a ‘regulated’ factory,…?
* And irony will ultimately play a role: failing full control of this development, we could expect increasing pressure regarding to expanding governmental regulation and health coverage from the pharmaceutical industry (!) as the pharmaceutical industry will not, despite their best efforts, put a lid on this development and will need to regroup and tap into new ‘secure’ funding sources – i.e., governmental contracts and service delivery.
*And lastly, we could see a drop in the cost of pharmaceutical development as 3D printing offers a cheaper means to develop and produce pharmaceuticals in massive quantities.
But gee, you say: surely there are ways and means to stop this kind of thing from spreading and remaining unregulated – right?
Mm, guess again – as Ms. Olsen rightfully pointed out:
…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.
Again, recalling my earlier posting about this matter, I point to another analogy: the gun industry. Once made, a gun is likely to appear in multiple hands and used in ways and means beyond it’s intended purchased use.
Same would go for 3D Printed designer drugs.
Ultimately, it all comes down to mutual concern and care: individuals who are given full access to the drugs they need and the health care they require will not see a need to go through the route of ‘underground’ 3D printer designer drugstores. Similarly, those with jobs and stable income will be less likely to go the route of ‘moonshining’ chemicals while expanding education will make more folks aware of the pitfalls – and potential – offered in this new and exciting development.
Just as some ‘negative’ aspects of human nature never change, so too do positive solutions still remain in front of us, waiting for us to utilize them.
To read this excellent article, please visit: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/olson20121222
To read more of Ms. Olsen’s exceptional reporting, check out: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/bio/olson/