"You could print your own medicine. And this is what we're doing in the lab at the moment," chemist Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow announced in a 2012 TED talk. The glimpse into yet another mindboggling use of 3D printing seemed like science-fiction—enhanced by his closing prediction of a future in which "you're going to have your own personal matter fabricator. Beam me up, Scotty."
But Cronin is a serious scientist actively working on making his predictions come to life. So commentators immediately started weighing in on the uses and (alleged) abuses of this distantly looming technology.
"[T]he orphan drug problem may well become a bad memory," I wrote, referring to the potential for printing small, personalized batches of medicine for sufferers of uncommon ailments. That would be a big deal for the treatment of diseases so rare that the development of treatments is currently an act of charity.
On the other hand, "Today's primitive psychedelics and artificial mood-boosters may be just the beginning," fretted The Week's Chris Gayomali, referring to the ability to craft recreational drugs on demand at the point of use.
But it was all so very speculative… So far off in the future.
Except, it wasn't. And now the concern is that regulators might find the challenges of 3D medicine so daunting that they try to choke it off—and, ironically, leave illegal use as the only implementation.
The first commercially 3D-printed drug, the epilepsy medication SPRITAM, went on sale in March of this year. SPRITAM doesn't fulfill Cronin's promise of custom medications printed by patients—3D production in this case is used to create a rapidly disintegrating, easily swallowed pill—but it's a demonstration of the medical use of the technology earlier than most people expected to see anything of the sort.
And even as SPRITAM prepared to go to market, "investigators from Wake Forest University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina created a prototype computer algorithm featuring software for 3D printing of personalized medications" and successfully used it to print varying doses of pills. The software isn't yet ready to make an appearance at pharmacies, much less in people's homes, but it works now. That brings the goal of personalized medicine much closer to fruition, just a few years after Cronin invoked Star Trek. This "could very well change how we treat serious and common medical conditions, from epilepsy to chronic pain, on a patient-specific basis, making medications customizable and therefore cheaper, more accurate, and more effective than ever before," predicted 3Ders.org.
But the same article noted that the technology could be "used to manufacture and mask illegal drugs."
As it turns out, Cronin foresaw this challenge even as he worked to make 3D printed medications a reality. In a 2012 interview with Vice, he placed his hopes on control of the chemical "ink" loaded into printers. "[W]e could make sure the ink is so simple that any attempt to split it open and do things would not work." Keeping DIYers from getting creative "could work like with Apple securing the iPhone from unauthorized apps," he added.
"People can jailbreak an iPhone though, you'll always have people who can hack the technology," interviewer Kevin Holmes pointed out.
Holmes' reminder that any attempt to restrict the use of 3D printing is likely to be bypassed rings more true than Cronin's hopes for unhackable chemical ink and printers. Innovation has its own logic—its potential isn't so easily confined to the preferred parameters of its creators, let alone politicians and government bureaucrats. That should be apparent 17 years after Napster and its spawn revolutionized the enjoyment of music and film, three years after Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed 3D-printed a functioning firearm and pushed gun control laws toward futility, and at a moment when FBI officials throw public temper tantrums over encryption.
As with every other exercise of creativity, 3D printing is changing the world in ways that the powers-that-be might or might not like. They'll have to adjust.
But they may kick and scream a bit on the way.
With SPRITAM on the market, lawyers and regulators are sweating bullets about what it all means—and their worries only start at kitchen-table ecstasy tablets, then range far beyond. Recently, the Dutch law firm De Clercq Advocaten Notarissen cautioned at length about the intellectual property and liability threats 3D printing poses to the current order, as well as the dangers of "printing of weapons, keys for police handcuffs, military material, medication or illegal drugs, or other undesirable products."
At almost the same moment, Bloomberg BNA spoke with legal experts who warned that "the recent FDA approval of the first 3D printed drug could lead to several complicated legal, product liability and intellectual property conflicts that could derail the new technology before it even starts."
The danger is that instead of adapting laws and regulations to the evolving possibilities of the world in which they live, regulators, legislators, and the courts could try to head off that evolution instead. Change is hard.
But you can't un-invent 3D printing any more than you can erase the ability to share files--or the ability to make fire, for that matter, if we're going to worry about dangerous innovations. Research will continue, and the technology will be adopted in less rule-bound jurisdictions.
Officials who try to stand in the way of 3D-printed medicine may find that they've thwarted only the life-saving applications, and left the technology in the hands of the underground recreational drug fanciers who got them so flustered in the first place.