The Beginning of the End for Pharmaceutical Monopolies

My love of 3D printer technology expands far beyond the firearms field. Being able to build complex things in the comfort of our own homes stands to upset the balance of power in many markets. One of the most valuable aspects of 3D printers is their ability to put an end to many monopolistic practices. If you’re able to download designs for an item and print it in your own home then patents become irrelevant, which is why this story about 3D printers capable of making drugs interests me:

He shows me the printer, a nondescript version of the £1,200 3D printer used in the Fab@Home project, which aims to bring self-fabrication to the masses. After a bit of trial and error, Cronin’s team discovered that it could use a bathroom sealant as a material to print reaction chambers of precisely specified dimensions, connected with tubes of different lengths and diameters. After the bespoke miniature lab had set hard, the printer could then inject the system reactants, or “chemical inks”, to create sequenced reactions.

The “inks” would be simple reagents, from which more complex molecules are formed. “If I was being facetious I would say that to find your inks you would go to the periodic table: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on,” Cronin says, “but obviously you can’t handle all those substances very well, so it would have to be a bit more complex than that. If you were looking to make a sugar, for example, you would start with your set of base sugars and mix them together. When we make complex molecules in the traditional way with test tubes and flasks, we start with a smaller number of simpler molecules.” As he points out, nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin. “With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule,” he says.

The real beauty of Cronin’s prototype system, however, is that it allows the printer not only to control the sequences and exact calibration of inks, but also to shape, from a tested blueprint, the environment in which those reactions take place. The scale and architecture of the miniature printed “lab” could be pre-programmed into software and downloaded for use with a standard set of inks. In this way, not only the combinations of reactants but also the ratios and speed at which they combine could be ingrained into the system, simply by changing the size of reaction chambers and their relation with one another; Cronin calls this “reactionware” or, because it depends on a conceptualised sequence of flow and reorientation in a 3D space, “Rubik’s Cube chemistry”.

Large pharmaceutical companies enjoy an advantage in the medical field. They can patent chemical compounds and effectively enjoy a monopoly on producing that compound for two decades. During that two decade period the consequences of monopolies afflict everybody who wants or needs that drug. Namely the pharmaceutical company enjoys the ability to jack the price up to whatever it desires since no competition is allowed to enter the market until the patent expires. 3D printers capable of producing drugs could overcome this issue. Suddenly people capable of reverse engineering the drug (say, by looking up the patent and going from there) could post blueprints online for all to download.

Another potential for these printers is the ability to drastically lower the cost of developing new drugs. Individuals with the proper background could develop new drugs on their person computers and perform tests by printing the new drugs. The overall costs would likely drop considerably, which would almost certainly cause a major leap in innovation.