Thanks to the chemists at the University of Illinois, a recently developed molecular 3D printer will bring chemistry into a new era.
This new machine will greatly benefit drug research and other molecule-based technologies as it helps quicken the process of analyzing different compounds and understanding how they respond to different other substances.
Chemistry professor and medical doctor Martin D. Burke and also lead developer explained the purpose of their project:
“We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple.”
The machine is able to work with “small molecules”, a class of compounds which can be defined as “compact chemical structures” that exist all around us. These molecules are very important in medicine as most drugs are developed through various chemical processes that take place between these small compounds. These chemical structures are also important in biology as they are used to understand the inner functions of cells and tissues. Another technology where small molecules are used is the solar cell and LED category.
Although very useful, small molecules are also very hard to make in the lab. At present, an experimented scientist would need years to understand how to engineer a single type of molecule. After that, the researcher will spend some time exploring the molecule, trying to understand how it functions. All these phases take up a lot of time, slowing down the development of “small-molecule-based” drugs and technologies.
Burke said that:
“Up to now, the bottleneck has been synthesis. There are many areas where progress is being slowed, and many molecules that pharmaceutical companies aren’t even working on, because the barrier to synthesis is so high.”
So how does the machine actually work?
It divides the larger compounds into “smaller building blocks” that can be easily put together. The blocks are divided in such a way that all of them have the same “connector piece” so they can be re-assembled into a bigger piece with the help of one simple reaction.
The method can be described as “a simple catch-and-release”. Every building block is added separately. After the excess has been removed, the next block will be added. With this method, Burke’s team managed to produce 14 different types of small molecules, including those with ring-structures that are usually difficult to make.
Many of these manufactured compounds are already on the market.
Image Source: 3D Print