By Andrew Wheeler | 3D Printing Industry
Synthesizing different types of molecules using an automated process such as 3D printing would be very disruptive in the medical research and pharmaceutical industries. We’ve seen what Cambrian Genomics is doing with laser printing DNA and their “democratization of creation” ethos, but recently, University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke announced some amazing specs and features of a new molecular synthesizing 3D printer in the journal Science. Burke’s machine, using only a few chemicals, can produce thousands of different molecules.
This machine can not only create molecules that humans have produced with other methods, but it could actually create some that have never been created by humans before. This would extend the capabilities of scientific research to examine the various properties of a whole molecular family, rather than just one or two compounds.
In Burke’s words, “There are many molecules in nature with some extraordinary natural properties, that are incredibly hard to make and just aren’t available to be purchased in a [lab supply] catalog. The general assumption has long been that you need a custom strategy to build each molecule, especially if you’re trying to automate the process. But we’ve demonstrated you can use the same system to create radically different molecules. You just need to modulate a step-by-step process.”
Burke distills the normally complex process of synthesizing chemicals into simplified steps that create separate building blocks. The 3D printer takes each building block, starts a chemical reaction, gets rid of the reaction’s byproducts, and begins to build the molecule from scratch. Then, these building blocks are snapped together like puzzle pieces. This facilitates an optimal environment where the chemicals can mix and a desired reaction takes place.
Burke proved that his 3D printer could create thousands of different chemicals across 14 distinct classes of small molecules. These classes include well-known chemical compounds used in medicine, as well as a few different molecules that are used in the production of solar cells and LEDs. These molecules can be synthesized in a few hours, depending on the number of steps needed to create them.
Burke explained that the hardest part of developing this technology was figuring out an optimal way to wash away the byproducts that occur with each chemical reaction. Of course, some of this information is unknown (being proprietary), but the fact that they may have figured out a standardized way to isolate and keep the molecules they want to after each reaction is pretty astounding (to me, anyway).
Though Burke’s prototype is limited in the number of chemicals it can produce, he believes it can currently be used to develop new medicines and drugs, saying, “And down the line, like the 3D printer, I expect you could see this process in the hands of non-specialists and even consumers. Giving the general population the ability to synthesize these molecules would be [game-changing] in ways I can’t even imagine.”
What really amazes me, in particular, is that a machine can now synthesize some molecules exponentially faster than a trained chemist using more conventional techniques.
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