Science Channel - InSCIder

17 Jul

Downloadable Drugs?

Prescription PillsI won't go to the doctor unless I'm really sick, and by really sick, I mean practically stumbling around and moaning incoherently like one of those shambling, vacant-eyed corpses infected with zombie disease in Night of the Living Dead. But that's actually because when I go to the doctor, I have to get a prescription filled. That usually involves multiple trips to the pharmacy and lots of standing in line, listening to other people talk loudly on their cell phones about their various loathsome ailments, pain-in-the-posterior significant others, or a recent Presidential candidate who supposedly has been endorsed by space aliens from the planet Zeeba.

But one day soon, we may not have to go to the pharamacy at all, or even have our prescriptions mailed to us. Instead, we'll simply be able to download the chemical blueprint of the medication from the Internet. Then we'll make the drugs at home, using a 3D printer — a device that builds objects by applying layers of material instead of ink — that's been modified to make use of chemicals. (I've previously written about the idea of "bioprinting" artificial human body parts for transplantation in a similar fashion).

To demonstrate the concept, ingenious scientists at Scotland's University of Glasgow recently took an off-the-shelf $2,000 3D printer and converted it into a chemical printer by adding reaction chambers and rigging the printer's nozzles to squirt various chemical ingredients. Then they used a software application called Fab@Home that basically turned the printer into a robotic chemist, adding a dash of this and a dash of that at the correct time to manufacture various chemical compounds. Here's an article that they wrote and published in the British science journal Nature, which explains all the details.

In this BBC News article, Glasgow professor Lee Cronin, who came up with the novel idea, explains: 

What we are doing is mixing the concept of the glassware and the chemicals together in the 3D printer to create what we call reactionware. It's almost like a layer cake — you print the last reactionary agent first and then build other chemical layers above, finally adding a liquid at the top. The liquid goes to layer one making a new molecule which goes to the next layer creating another and so on until at the bottom you get your prescription drug out.

So far, the chemicals that the researchers have created aren't fit for human consumption. But they soon plan to switch ingredients and try to make drugs currently available only in pharmacies. They envision small labs around the world equipped with modified chemical printers taking the place of big pharmaceutical factories, and think it could revolutionize access to healthcare, particularly in the developing world.

To me though, that prediction sounds a bit like the 19th century prognosticator who envisioned that every city would have a telephone someday. I think that as 3D printers rapidly become less expensive and ordinary people start to buy them in great numbers, some DIY genius is going to come up with an easy-to-install after-market kit that will convert them into drug-making machines. Then we'll all be printing drugs at home, and pharmacies will go the way of video rental shops.

There's also an enormous danger, of course, that this technology also could be misused. Narcotics traffickers would no longer have to go through the expense, trouble and risk of raising opium poppies in Afghanistan, refining them into heroin, and smuggling the drug into the U.S. to sell on street corners. Instead, they simply could sell access to a clandestine website or P2P network, from which addicts could download and print their own synthetic heroin, indistinguishable in effect from the plant-based narcotic. And once pharmaceutical drugs easily can be reproduced in digital form, those chemical blueprints inevitably are either going to be stolen or reverse-engineered.

Eventually, anybody who wants to take just about any drug probably would be able to find some offshore web pharmacy willing to provide it. Human growth hormone, untested cancer cures, and the "intelligence in a pill" medication adderall would probably would be available in whatever quantity you might dare to take. Better living through chemistry? Perhaps not.

There's also the danger that hackers or terrorists — or hackers who are terrorists — might break into online pharmacies' servers and tinker illicitly with the chemical blueprints, creating mischief. We might think we're downloading a medication for acid reflux, and end up instead tripping with Roger Sterling.

So what do you think? Express your opinion below.

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