In the same way that it happened in engineering, 3D printing would mean a change in the field of chemistry by allowing molecules to be created quickly, flexibly and within everyone's reach.
Credits: L. Brian Stauffer
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has developed a new method to synthesize small molecules and thus end the problem of creating new drugs.
The process for synthesize small molecules What has been followed so far consists in employing highly personalized methods and strategies, which requires the development (inefficiently) of specific automation solutions.
Martin Burke, a scientist at the University of Illinois leading the research, explains that this process is slow and is not available to most researchers. In fact, according to Burke, there are a large number of drugs that are yet to be discovered due to the limitations of this synthesis process.
The problem is the difficulty involved in creating small molecules. Despite their size, they are very complex. “Every time a molecule is created, a specific strategy has to be developed. This customization is slow and requires highly qualified specialists. That is why there are many molecules that have not been worked on yet. And is that transforming existing molecules in nature into real medicines is a challenge.
The role of these molecules is fundamental not only in medicine but also for technology, since they are part of LEDs, diagnostic tools or solar panels. A large number of small molecules can be found in nature, many of which have already been adapted. However, according to Burke, the potential of these molecules is almost untapped precisely due to the synthesis process followed so far that requires time and skill.
The question Burke and his team asked was whether small molecules could be created using the same block strategy that is used with large molecules.
Block mounting How does it work?
The new synthesis process that Burke's team has developed is based on the process that nature itself follows to synthesize molecules. After analyzing the chemical structures of thousands of different natural products, they discovered that there are a series of blocks that repeat themselves over and over again, which means that small molecules are by nature modular. His work has consisted of carefully analyzing the most common blocks and creating a “molecular 3d printer". That printer is a small molecule synthesizer that assembles these building blocks using a common chemical reaction. With it, they have already been able to synthesize 14 different classes of small molecules from a common set of building blocks.
Thanks to this process Burke and his team have developed hundreds of these common blocks and the great news is that they can be purchased. According to Burke, what they are trying to show is that with a small number of blocks, thousands of molecules can be created with which get a lot of different natural products.
Small molecules to treat diseases
Burke and his team are exploring the potential of these small molecules for the treatment of various diseases. Plants, animals, and microbes create a large number of small molecules that have similar functions to proteins and that with the correct chemical modification they could help many patients regain health. For this, it would be necessary to synthesize and analyze not only the small molecules that are found in nature but also those that have been modified.
Burke, who founded the company Revolution Medicines to further develop this technology, he is excited about the opportunity to allow non-specialists in the field - scientists, engineers, doctors and even the public itself- create small molecules. Making the possibility of creating something available to everyone is a great advance. The 3D printer for molecules will benefit from the creativity, innovation and ideas that arise when inexperienced people begin to use technology that until now was only available to a few.