Science Takes Chemistry Sets to the Next Level

Dec. 15, 2014
Santa may have to step up his game on this one

In the mid-1900s (before kids figured out how to use cold meds to make meth) chemistry sets for Christmas were all the rage. Beyond the allure of mixing potentially explosive chemicals in test tubes, these kits inspired generations of kids to get excited about chemistry and perhaps even pursue a future in scientific fields.

As we approach the start of 2015, 3-D printing has collided with drug manufacturing and challenged the idea of traditional chemistry. In a 2012 TED talk, Glasgow University professor Lee Cronin discussed the idea of turning 3-D printers into universal chemistry sets that could actually print their own drugs.

Essentially, Cronin seeks to automate chemistry – or as he has stated in several interviews “app chemistry.” Downloadable software could be used to actually make molecules in 3-D printers.

Considering the struggles that come with getting an ordinary office printer to function (“why does it say paper jam when there is no paper jam?”) combined with the (probably more important) implications this could have on drug manufacturing as a whole, Cronin’s “chemputer” system is intimidating, to say the least…and yet, undeniably cool.

While the far-future end result of the chemputer system could very well be individuals being able to print personalized pharmaceuticals at home, the shorter-term benefits would first involve using the system on a research level, followed by the next step, which would be using the system in local pharmacies. Clearly not without obstacles, but nonetheless a revolutionary idea that could drastically improve collaboration between scientists and drug distribution in many areas of the world.

Along those lines, a team of Louisiana Tech University researchers have developed a way to create an edible capsule using a 3D printer. The capsule could then be loaded with antibiotics or other medicinal compounds and sealed. The long-term implications of such technology would be that pharmacists could tailor the contents or dosage of a drug to meet individual needs.

Much like walking down the stairs on Christmas morning and seeing a tree surrounded by gifts, new technology offers the thrill of endless potential. As 3D printing continues to evolve and its potential role in research and drug manufacturing unwraps itself before our eyes, the bar on traditional chemistry has definitely been raised.

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