Like cryptocurrency and GOOP, three-dimensional printing has adherents so passionate they border on the fanatic.
But unlike the cults of digital currency (the value of which is inextricably linked to the for-real money tied to the central banks it’s supposed to replace) and bunk wellness cures repackaged and sold with Hollywood star power, there’s at least something tangible about 3D printers and the products they create. Look: Here is a thing, made of polymer. My 3D printer made it.
And very much unlike volatile money and curing cancer with love, 3D-printing technology has rapidly advanced from a fad with questionable utility into a phenomenon with real potential for the rest of us—but only in certain, select applications.
It may be cool to 3D-print an office or a house, but it’s hard to argue that the appeal advances beyond pure novelty. There is no need to use a giant and costly printer, rigged specifically for that purpose, to spit out a polymer house. We have houses, and we have construction workers who build them. It’s a whole industry (for now, at least).
Having a 3D printer available to create pharmaceutical drugs on demand, on the other hand, is not only a big step towards a reality bent towards Star Trek but could be of immense value to far-flung places in need of hard-to-obtain medical supplies.
And this is very much a thing.
The FDA approved the first 3D-printed drug in 2015. More recently, researchers at the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry published a paper in which they explain how “drugs on demand” can be created anywhere in the world using a “chemical digital code” and a 3D-printer.
The key is assigning a digital code to every chemical compound. As long as a 3D printer can receive that code, the printer should be able to reproduce the compound.
This step towards the “digitization of chemistry” can be used to quickly produce in-demand vaccines, according to articles published in Automation World.
If a printer can replicate pharmaceutical drugs, there’s reason to believe 3D printers could also—maybe—create other substances with pharmacological effects on demand.
As Motherboard reported, the Glasgow team’s promises of 3D printed drugs anywhere in the world has less to do with 3D printing than it does the drugs themselves. In their paper, they describe how they were able to create a muscle relaxant in three steps from “readily available chemical precursors.”
Active components of compounds like drugs are “complex molecules.” Examples of complex molecules include amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins—which, in turn, are required for animal cells.
If most every drug can be created from just a few raw materials with the addition of code, then printing vaccines on demand is a viable practice.
It’s much more complicated to create a complex molecule like a plant cell—and even less assured that a plant cell with hundreds of constituent cannabinoids and aromatic oils like terpenes can be created with a 3D-printer.
What would the building blocks be—and how would any of this be more efficient than just growing a damn plant from seed?
Until those questions can be answered, 3D printing marijuana is still just science fiction… but give it another generation.