3D printing brings drug production to the masses, but can it be regulated?
Technological advancement has revolutionized manufacturing procedures. One of the most talked about advancements in manufacturing is 3D printing. 3D printing not only holds potential for entertainment and consumer purposes, this technology is posited as a way to revolutionize health care. From tissue and organ engineering to drug discovery, 3D printing promises to fix our health problems. Recently, chemistry got on the 3D printing wagon and this new approach could move chemistry to the masses, and maybe even allow people to print their own drugs.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow are behind the 3D chemistry printing, using 3D printers as chemical synthesizers. The reactionary agents are printed in layers with the last reactionary agent printed first. The addition of a liquid at the top creates the chemical reaction. Currently, research on this technique has been limited to proof of principle, but researchers are beginning work to show that currently available pharmaceuticals can be made using this approach.
If 3D printing can indeed be used for chemical synthesis, chemistry and chemical discovery could occur without the expensive lab infrastructure. This could greatly advance small commercial enterprises and could be used to create niche and individualized medication. Furthermore, if this technology proves feasible to implement in the developing world, it could greatly improve health care by increasing access to pharmaceuticals.
As exciting as all this is, there are also numerous implications of this technology that must be considered. The first is safety. Chemistry can quickly turn deadly for researchers when done incorrectly. Even if the chemicals can be made safely, design could be a major issue. Improper chemical reactions can result in pharmaceuticals that cause major health deficits, such as that seen in the MPTP incident in 1976. Another issue centers around the making of illegal drugs to be sold on the black market. Nonmedical prescription drug abuse is a major problem, even in today's highly-regulated environment. In 2010, an estimated seven million US individuals used prescription drugs recreationally and, after cannabis, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drugs in high school students. These statistics make the possibility of 'at home' printing of drugs problematic.
The main way around these issues is regulation. In designing this procedure, the researchers hope to create a regulatory system that addresses these issues. Namely, they intend to implement a software system that could not be modified. This system would require pre-evaluation of the reactions prior to their use in printing. While regulation is necessary, pre-evaluation could be time-consuming and costly. This regulation could negate some of the proposed advantages of this technique, such as the ability to make custom medications and efficiently bring advances in chemistry. Additionally, this regulation still does not address the issue of illegal production of 'approved' pharmaceuticals.
The technology for printing pharmaceuticals and chemical reactions is here. If 3D printing can create entire organs, it should be able to make an ibuprofen. In this instance the technology itself might not be the limiting factor, rather, how this technology is regulated, will be the difficult issue. From the dangerous nature of chemical reactions to the production of illegal drugs, an underlying infrastructure needs to be in place before the mass use of this technology.