In a new study, released in the journal Science today, a group of Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientists, led by Martin Burke from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, revealed a new machine – already dubbed chemistry’s 3D printer – capable of synthesizing thousands of small molecules in 14 distinct classes from a common set of building blocks.
“There are many molecules in nature with some extraordinary natural properties, that are incredibly hard to make and just aren’t available to be purchased in a [lab supply] catalog,” said Burke. “The general assumption has long been that you need a custom strategy to build each molecule, especially if you’re trying to automate the process. But we’ve demonstrated you can use the same system to create radically different molecules. You just need to modulate a step-by-step process.”
Burke claims that, since up until now researchers had to rely on a complicated, highly customized and largely inaccessible approach to synthesizing molecules, the new printer could soon lead new discoveries.
“A lot of great medicines have not been discovered yet because of this synthesis bottleneck. The vision is that anybody could go to a website, pick the building blocks they want, instruct their assembly through the web, and the small molecules would get synthesized and shipped,” Burke says. “We’re not there yet, but we now have an actionable roadmap toward on-demand small-molecule synthesis for non-specialists.”
In order to synthesize a new compound, the machine follows several simplified steps – by connecting the required building blocks, separated into their own individual compartments, inducing a chemical reaction and then washing away its byproducts, it builds the molecule from the ground up.
Thanks to this streamlined method of production, the printer can not just make molecules as they are, but also custom-build a series of other closely-related chemicals, helping scientists test the medicinal properties of prospective, yet previously unusable compounds. Depending on how many steps are involved, synthesizing a particular molecule with this machine takes only a few hours, whereas before, according to Burke, this process might have taken a trained chemist years to craft.
The team is excited to soon see their new invention used by both professionals and non-professionals alike:
“When you put the power to manufacture into the hands of everyone, history speaks toward tremendous impact,” claimed Burke. “A 3D 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.”