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3D Printing Could Revolutionize Drugs

Downloadable, DIY drugs could soon make the idea of "controlled substances" a thing of the past.

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By Bryan Le

07/26/13

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3D printing is a highly-anticipated new technology that could soon "revolutionize" the drug market. This technology, now in development, could soon allow us to design and print everything from toys and tools to human hearts—and, inevitably, drugs. Lee Cronin, a chemist from the University of Glasgow, says he has created a prototype 3D "Chemputer" that can create medicine by assembling chemical compounds on a molecular level. “What Apple did for music, I'd like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs,” says Cronin. Prescription patients would be able to purchase a "blueprint" and chemical "ink" at an online version of a pharmacy, and could then print the drug at home with software and a 3D molecular printer. Chemicals and dosages could be tailored to meet each individual's specific needs, and certain allergies and other health concerns could be "edited out." If successful, this new prescription method could radically alter the entire pharmaceutical industry, taking control away from Big Pharma and placing it in the hands of the consumers. “In the future, we will not sell drugs, but blueprints or apps,” says Cronin.

But just like music on iTunes, the technology will also open up avenues for consumers to evade the rules. Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High, predicts ambitious DIY chemists will eventually control the drug market—making the very notion of "controlled substances" a thing of the past. Power says this could be a good thing: free production and distribution of drugs like LSD and MDMA, he claims, would eliminate the need for “designer drugs" (unregulated substitutes for illicit street drugs, with often-unpredictable and harmful effects). But downloading illegal drug blueprints from unknown sites could also create the same problems as downloading music: Without any official standards or regulation, the blueprints could be mislabeled (the same problem, Powers points out, that currently plagues the illegal drug market). And chemically sloppy medicines could have far more harmful consequences than sloppily-recorded songs. But for better or for worse, the technology is on the horizon. When, exactly? “Maybe 10 to 15 years? Who knows?” says Cronin. “Maybe five to 10.”

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