Chemists at the University of Illinois, under the supervision of chemistry professor and medical doctor Martin D. Burke, built a molecule-making machine, which functions on the principles of a 3D-printer, but uses knowledge we gained from plants. The aim of their research was to speed up the process of generating molecules, in order to make it available to non-specialists. To achieve this, Professor Burke said, a complicated process like chemical synthesis had to be made simple, so that it could be automatized.

Most drugs available today for various medical conditions are based on small molecules – a category of complex but compact chemical structures, which are also used in solar cells and LEDs and which play an essential role in the functioning of living cells. Because these molecules are difficult to synthetize, the progress of pharmaceutical companies has been significantly slowed down so far.

To generate molecules mechanically, you have to first create their “building blocks” – smaller components that aggregate into molecules through a simple reaction, once their identical connector pieces are stitched together. In order to make the device work, Burke’s group constructed a method that adds one piece at a time and wipes away the excess before adding the next building block. Using this technique, the molecular 3D-printer can make up 14 different kinds of small molecules, some of which are very difficult to obtain by traditional methods. Now, a simple click of the mouse can set off the process, once the printer has been created.

Miles Fabian, a member of the Institute of General Medical Sciences within the National Institute of Health (which funded part of Burke’s research), declared his enthusiasm for the impact he foresees the new molecule-making machine will have on the synthetic chemistry market, as well as on research in bio sciences.

So far, the new technology has been licensed only to REVOLUTION Medicines, Inc., a company which produces anti-fungal medications, but Burke hopes that his results will be used in other therapeutic fields as well. He believes that the industrialization of the molecule-making technology will help improve the invention. The new discovery is featured on the cover of the March 13 issue of Science Magazine.

image source: Science