As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the basic concepts behind inkjet printing can be applied to many areas outside of document printing. You’ll already be familiar with the concept of 3D printing, where small amounts of material are laid down in layers to form three dimensional objects. This technology is already available for consumers to buy, and many hobbyist 3D printing kits are on the market. In a recent development, scientists in Glasgow, Scotland have devised a method that, in the future, will allow drugs to be printed in the same way.
Pharmaceuticals, especially for those with chronic illnesses who require regular repeat prescriptions, are expensive. Much of that expense comes as a result of having to maintain an expensive infrastructure, including laboratories and factories. Additionally, it is impossible to produce the exact dosages and mixture of ingredients that patients require in a mass production environment. If, in the future, patients were able to download prescriptions from their doctors via the Internet, with specially tailored dosages and mixtures of drugs, there would be a revolutionary change in both the cost and convenience of obtaining medication. Imagine being able to wake up in the morning, instruct your computer to produce your heart pills for the day, and have them waiting for you after you shower.
The Glasgow innovations rely on a new technology called miniaturized fluidic reactionware devices. These devices are a “lab on a chip” and can be produced with widely varying properties by 3D printing. They are carefully designed structures of chemical compounds that act as reactants, catalysts to encourage reactions, and a polymer gel substrate on which reactions can occur. By varying the chemical makeup of the reactionware devices, precisely calibrated reactions can take place, producing a wide variety of end products. Professor Lee Cronin, the lead developer of reactionware, and his team have already produced a number of organic and inorganic compounds using this method, as well as gold nanoparticles.
The potential applications of reactionware devices are immense, and in the same way that traditional printing has been disrupted by the Internet, and component manufacture will be disrupted by low-cost 3D printing, so the pharmaceutical industry will face disruption from the availability of a mini-drug dispensary in the home. It will take some time before this becomes a reality, but, as the price of 3D printers continues to fall, and research into reactionware and related technologies continues, Professor Cronin expects in-home dispensaries to be common place within the next couple of decades.
If you’re interested in investigating further, check out Cronin’s original paper (free registration required).