As well as body parts, 3D printers might be able to print drugs. Chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow has found a way of using a Fab@Home printer to create a chemistry lab, rather than just creating the parts. By adding chemical reagents to the list of possible inks, he showed in April this year that a 3D printer could be used to print a set of reaction flasks and linking tubes out of bathroom sealant, and in the walls of these flasks he printed catalysts and sensors. Another set of liquid inks, the reagents, were then squirted into the printed equipment to carry out simple chemical reactions.
Cronin wants to print drugs, and has already managed to print ibuprofen using his so-called reactionware. Why not combine printed drugs with printed body tissues? Lipson imagines printing tissues for testing drugs – printed drugs perhaps. Cronin thinks that this kind of system could all be printed at once, a raft of reactions to find the best drug would be printed first, then the set-up needed to test them against a swathe of different printed cell cultures or tissues could be printed alongside.
Cronin also has accessibility in mind. He says that by turning the instructions for the printer into a smartphone app, combined with a pre-packaged set of chemical inks, his system could bring drugs to remote communities that desperately need them. He’s hoping to be able to provide printing instructions for simple painkillers, anti-malarials, or in future maybe even drugs that pharmaceuticals companies know how to make but don’t market because there isn’t high demand for them.
An app store for chemical reactions remains an endeavour for the future, and is fraught with problems, not least regulation and approvals from the US FDA and other drug regulatory bodies to make sure that any such systems are safe from hacking or abuse. But the idea that 3D printing combined with mobile phone technology can allow remote communities to access a range of things that otherwise would be impossible, is an attractive one.
Unaware of the interest he was about to get from 3D printing enthusiasts, computing engineer Grant Schindler at Georgia Tech launched Trimensional in 2011, a phone app that turns lots of 2D images into a 3D version. Schindler made the app as a social tool, for fun. But he quickly discovered that he’d created a 3D scanner that would be just the thing for the developing world, and could be put to use there soon. Schindler is certain that Trimensional will be useful to medical professionals in the developing world. “I have had some discussions with folks in the prosthetics and orthotics community who are excited about the potential for using Trimensional on the iPad to cheaply scan body parts for custom fit prosthetics and orthotics,” he says.
Deshmukh at the Vigyan Ashram in Pabal agrees. “Prosthetics is really one place where it’s very important that you have 3D printers,” he says, not just in India but in developing countries elsewhere. “The availability of a 3D printer would make us equipped to provide quick solutions,” for a whole section of society that gets overlooked at the moment, he says.
There are limitations at the moment, not least that smart phones or tablets weren’t designed as 3D scanners, says Schindler, but he knows what’s required to fix this: “we need to intelligently combine the phone's sensors and screen with new algorithms to extract 3D information from images.” This limits the technology to printing knick-knacks – for now. “There is every reason to think this level of quality and accuracy should improve over time,” Schindler says. This will be thanks to better cameras, faster processors, and better software.