Scientists invent 3-D printing machine that can print compounds

(L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois)

A group of chemists led by medical doctor Martin D. Burke at the University of Illinois has achieved a major breakthrough in the field of chemistry by creating a 'molecule-making machine,' or in other words, a 3D printer for chemicals.

According to a new study featured in the latest issue of Science, the scientists have built chemistry's own version of the 3D printer, a machine that is capable of systematically synthesizing thousands of different molecules from just a few starting chemicals.

The machine simplifies the complex process of synthesizing chemical into a series of generalizable steps by first separating the starting chemicals into distinct building blocks, connecting each building block and then inducing a chemical reaction to wash away the reaction's byproducts to gradually build each molecule from scratch.

The scientists used this process to demonstrate that the machine could manufacture thousands of different chemicals in 14 distinct classes of small molecules, which included some known medicines as well as various molecules used in LEDs and solar cells. It only takes a few hours for the machine to synthesize each molecule, depending on the number of steps.

Burke claims that the machine is capable of rapidly synthesizing molecules that can take years for a trained chemist to build. While the current machine can produce only a limited number of chemicals, Burke believes that it is ready for developing new drugs.

Burke has now co-founded a company called REVOLUTION Medicines, Inc., which has already licensed the technology. The company is making huge investments for developing next generation molecule-making machines that will be more powerful and have better scalability. Burke believes that these machines have the potential for new rapid drug discovery and new chemically spawned technologies, which can be quickly and easily accessed by everyone.


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