3D Printing

Print Your Own Drugs, For Health and Fun

Instead of adapting laws and regulations to the evolving possibilities of the world in which they live, regulators, could try to head off that evolution instead


"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.

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  1. I first thought, about ten years ago, that by the middle of the century at the latest, we could have machines in the bathroom which would analyze a drop of blood (possibly by a laser seeing through the skin and not requiring an actual drop), our breath, toilet samples, sweat, hair, and so on, and spit out medicines right on the spot, or at least in time to eat with breakfast.

    Of course these will be used for recreational drugs too, and mind enhancers, and any other use which springs to mind once they are a reality.

    1. They do have a little machine in your bathroom that analyzes your breath and sweat and urine and so on to monitor your biome, but it’s not for the purpose of dispensing medication. And by “they”, I mean the NSA, of course. I’m not surprised you’re not aware of that.

      1. However, having been made by the ‘lowest’ crony bidder, it doesn’t work, and cost ten times what an actual device to do all that would.

  2. The govt is over regulating Uber for simply hooking up people looking for voluntary transactions. Can’t imagine the squealing they’ll make when people want to make their own drugs. Oh wait, yes I can.

    1. Just wait for an overdose death, then pass a law named after that person. Such a law would put 3-D drug printing underground with the rest of the drug trade. Problem solved.

      1. From where we sit today, we can look back at the evidence from the Roman Empire and conclude that they had all of the technical know-how to have had an industrial revolution if not for the ready supply of cheap slaves.

        I if the future people will look back on us and go “These people could do all of that? Why did they never develop it further?” And wonder what their conclusion would be.

        1. If the industrial revolution happened a thousands years earlier, we would currently be living in water world due to global warming. Do you want gills? I didn’t think so!

            1. Actually water world would be kind of nice. Sailing, fishing, swimming, unchecked violence, prostitution, free trade…wait a damn minute, water world is the MOST libertarian movie.

        2. they had all of the technical know-how to have had an industrial revolution if not for the ready supply of cheap slaves

          Also, their ruling culture was hidebound and actively sought to squash technical innovation for fear that it would disrupt the status quo. Before the Macedonian Empire was swallowed up by the Romans, Greek inventors had come up with steam engines, vending machines, repeating crossbows, mechanical orreries, etc., all of which were basically forgotten under the pax Romana. The industrial revolution could have started nearly two millennia early if not for imperial fear of innovation… which doesn’t exactly bode well for bespoke pharmaceuticals.

  3. Why not bypass the whole thing and print implantable electrodes so that you can achieve intoxication with a few pulses of cheap electricity?

    1. Larry niven?

  4. I can understand 3-D printing material objects and mechanical devices where the composition isn’t necessarily critical, but how do you 3-D print drugs? Don’t you need the material first – unless you plan on 3-D printing a drug made out of plastic pellets or whatever your “printer ink” is? If you’re 3-D printing a bologna sandwich, you’re going to use 2 slices of bread and a slice of bologna to feed into the printer so it can print out 2 slices of bread and a slice of bologna? The essence of the drug isn’t the pellet or the pill or the powder or whatever, it’s the ingredients that go into it. If you don’t have the ingredients, what does it matter that you can 3-D print a pill? And then if you do have the ingredients, what does it matter?

    1. I have a friend who’s making a small fortune in on demand novel sugars synthesis up in Boston. The field is advancing very rapidly. I don’t understand the mechanics, but it works.

      1. Sometimes there’s a perfectly normal term of art that just sounds wrong. I know what it means but “Novel Sugars” just sounds fake.

        Though I would be interested if you did manage to find any literature or documentation about how the synthesis works.

        1. Is that like the flouridated sugar they use for PET scans?

          1. UCS, if you wouldn’t mind asking Lee, since I’m incapable of hitting the correct reply button. thxbai

            1. Novel Sugars? Weren’t they the triplets in that movie . . .

    2. Molecular assembly would need some sort of convenient element source. Feed it multivitamins, maybe? Some soot for carbon, a few gas bottles for H2/O2 and some halides, easy peasy.

      1. A beer and a banana peel… Mr. Fusion will do the rest!

        But then after that, Government Almighty will fix it all… By PUNISHING EVERYONE!!! Punishment and violence (by Democratically Selected “Top Men”) will ALWAYS fix it ALL!

    3. Those ingredients would be available on the Black Market. Not any different than making Meth, you need all the chemicals. When the government makes those ingredients illegal (taking pseudo-amphetamines off shelves), someone will find a way to market it illegally. Not at all different than you can buy e-cigarette cartridges (Blu) filled with cannabis oil instead of nicotine.

    4. Maybe this graphic will help. What do you notice about the building blocks of these recreational drugs?


      The answer is that there are very few:


  5. This reminds me of a piece somebody had written about how, with the modern regulatory state, if nobody had ever built the natural gas distribution system we have now and somebody were to propose it can you imagine that such a thing would ever be allowed? A system of underground pipes running right into everybody’s home where they can just turn a knob and out comes this highly flammable poisonous explosive invisible gas that could at any time suffocate you or blow up your house or burn it down in the middle of the night with innocent little children and cute little puppies asleep in their beds? Preposterous!

    1. One of the consequences of the “nanny state”. And the problem is getting worse instead of better…

      1. The FDA would never approve aspirin, either, if it were invented today… And toothbrushes, if newly invented today, would require triplicate DEA-overseen prescriptions from your dentist… I know many people who are addicted to their toothbrushes…

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  7. Where are the bioethicists to save us from the scourge of on demand drugs?

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  10. Witness their confusion of 3-D printed plastic toy guns with the cold steel originals, Reason staffers seem weirdly awe-struck by what ordinary people who have passed science courses can do .

    What’s next ? Amazement at DIY iron smelting ?

    1. Right? 3-D printed guns? Ever heard of zip guns, people?
      Even this is absurdly contrived. Getting the chemicals is the hard part. Making drugs after that is easy. You don’t need a 1700 dollar printer when some used pyrex does it just as good.

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    1. Is that you, Ronnie?

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  14. Authoritarians and nanny-staters are so protective of our counter-productive drug war. Until the general population understands that abuse of ANY dangerous drug is made more severe by its prohibition, we will continue to piss, moan, and cry, but the situation will not improve.

    1. the whole fentanyl overdose thing should be proof to anyone unconvinced that your health and safety is absolutely not the point.

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  16. The main problem I see with this is that developing new, completely novel drugs is far beyond the capabilities of any amateur chemist. It could POSSIBLY be done, but its rather akin to saying someone with a small metal fabrication shop could build a 747. It costs billions to bring new drugs to market.
    Making pills is pennies on the dollar to that. Its basically Pez with stricter quality control. What you are paying for is the idea, the formula, not the production of a remarkably simple physical object. So this entire idea would only be valuable if intellectual property was no longer a thing.
    Additionally, I don’t see how a 3-d printer would make this easier. Getting the precursor chemicals is the hard part, and basic lab equipment is way cheaper than a printer.

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