New ‘Molecule-Making Machine’ Could Speed The Development Of Life-Saving Drugs

Thanks to advances in 3-D printing, it’s now possible to whip up everything from pizza to prosthetics to human organs with the push of a button.

Now researchers have created a 3-D printer that works on the atomic scale, assembling complex molecules from scratch. And they say their molecule-making machine could revolutionize the drug-development process and simplify the fabrication of solar cells and other high-tech products.

A drug discovery revolution? “We’re really excited about the immediate impacts that this will have on drug discovery,” Dr. Martin D. Burke, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and one of the researchers, says in a video released by the university (see above).

The traditional way of synthesizing small molecules requires a step-by-step series of chemical reactions–a process that is time-consuming and which requires enormous expertise.

“Small molecules have already had a big impact on the world, but we’ve barely touched the surface of what they’re capable of achieving,” he said in a written statement. “A lot of great medicines have not been discovered yet because of this synthesis bottleneck.”

The new printer simplifies the molecule-making process and makes it accessible to non-chemists.

“When you put the power to manufacture into the hands of everyone, history speaks toward tremendous impact,” Burke said in the statement. “A 3-D printer for molecules could allow us to harness all the creativity, innovation, and outside-the-box thinking that comes when non-experts start to use technology that used to only be in the hands of a select few.”

How it works. To create the machine, Burke and his collaborators analyzed the structures of thousands of molecules and identified the chemical “building blocks” shared by a large majority of them. The machine essentially snaps these building blocks together like LEGOs and —> Read More