There is a common perception that manufacturing of drugs used in the healthcare industry occur only in the huge laboratories of big pharmaceutical companies who spend billions of dollars on Research & Development (R&D) and equipment. However, this perception might change soon, thanks to researchers at the University of Glasgow who have unveiled a new process of producing drugs with the help of a process known as “reactionware” – small reactors that can produce drugs with the help of 3D printers.
In a paper published in the scientific journal Science, researchers have demonstrated an approach that can help to manufacture fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals in self-contained plastic reactionware device using a 3D printer. The new process can be termed groundbreaking as it may make possible for doctors especially in developing countries and in remote areas to quickly produce drugs and curtail serious epidemics. It can also help common people to produce their own pharmaceutical drugs such as Ibuprofen at home.
The process of building drugs using 3D printers is not as simple as it may sound. It took several years for the researchers to reach this point. The system involves software, precursors, a 3D printer and an instruction manual. The software is first used to design a reactor. This reactor is similar to a series of water-bottled sized containers printed using a 3D printer. These reactors carry out the different chemical reactions required to produce a drug. This can allow pharmacists or doctors or those who possess specific drugs that are necessary to produce a desired pharmaceutical drug with the help of a 3D printer.
The entire process works on what the researchers call chemical to computer-automated design (ChemCAD) approach. This approach allows translation of chemical synthesis into a digital code. This digital code then guides the 3D printer consisting of an entire synthetic route internally to produce a drug through simple operations.
For example, the software is first used to create a blueprint. This blueprint (designed by qualified chemists) is used to communicate with the 3D printer about the sort of reactor to make, the number of containers needed or the ways they are to be connected in series. The construction of each reactor requires the design of a blueprint, instructions on how it is to be used to create the desired drug (the manual) and a 3D printer.
To back their novel approach with evidence, the researchers demonstrated the approach by designing a blueprint to manufacture the muscle relaxant Baclofen and other anticonvulsant and ulcer drugs. The researchers designed the blueprint for Baclofen, used it to 3D print the reactor and then used it to create some samples of the drug.
The Way Ahead
Even though the use of 3D printers may allow production of drugs easier for medical personnel who possess the necessary chemicals to manufacture their own reactors, the system is likely to face clearance hurdles from regulatory bodies. This is mainly because, such a system, the team of researchers acknowledge, could be easily abused to create illicit drugs.