The future of the war on drugs

At the same time, one branch of that thinking has itself evolved into a new project: the notion of creating downloadable chemistry, with the ultimate aim of allowing people to “print” their own pharmaceuticals at home. Cronin’s latest TED talk asked the question: “Could we make a really cool universal chemistry set? Can we ‘app’ chemistry?” “Basically,” he tells me, in his office at the university, with half a grin, “what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.”

Here is more, hat tip goes to the excellent Eli Dourado.


This would work for homeopathic drugs. You could have a set of master tinctures, mix them with water, succuss them automatically, and deliver a customized remedy to the user. It could be like a little desktop printer, and it would offer the complete homeopathic materia medica.

Or you could just have it dispense water and get the same results.

Don't believe in the placebo effect?

Seems pretty clear to me that Samuel and Mike do believe in the placebo effect. An impressive-looking machine that whirred and employed blinking lights as it dispensed ordinary tap water would be taking advantage of the placebo effect.

Homeopathy also sounds like the ultimate cure against scarcity since the more you dilute the more effective things get.

He said a tincture, so actually it could dispense bourbon and get the same results. And I might buy one.

If this works, it will completely change the economics of drug discovery and testing. It won't be possible for big pharma to charge prices significantly above the cost of home synthesis, which may be much lower than what is required to recuperate capital invested in the development of such drugs.

You mean, apart from the fact that drugs will still be patented and so this will change nothing?

Try enforcing copyright/patient law on consumers. Good luck.


If this happens I predict an explosion in availability of more types of recreational drugs, including new designer drugs. After all, mankind has an extremely long history of pursuing intoxicants and hallucinogens.

Phillip K. Dick, Call your office!

Honestly, I'm surprised this hasn't happened already.

I am not sure if you are aware, but there are websites where one can buy all sorts of new designer recreational drugs already.

This will give virus a whole new meaning. Don't download the LSD attachment! It is bad acid!

How's this for a deceptive statement of Algorian proportions:

>>The idea is very much at the conception stage

You don't say.

Printing out matter at the molecular level in your own home, eh? Sounds great. I think I'll skip the whole drug thing and just print out Jessica Alba, if that's OK.

As to home synthesis of drugs:
The cost of pharmaceuticals, especially the kind suited to small-batch manufacturing, is not due to synthetic chemistry. Rather, it is due to the thousands of preclinical compounds that had to be synthesized, screened, refined, tested, tested, tested, and tested again. You can argue that barriers to clinical trials need to be lowered/eliminated, but that is completely different from the home-synthesis issue.

As to drug discovery:
Pharmaceutical development is not equivalent to semiconductor production (or apps, for that matter). All the lead compounds in the world aren't worth a Tylenol tablet unless you have a meaningful set of assays to (hopefully!) identify a "drug-like" molecule. Slapping together a bunch of combinatorial chemistry libraries does not give you a "drug", it gets to to the starting line. If you really want to be your own phenotypic screen, just pop some unregulated "nutraceuticals" and see what feels good/bad...

Meh - the cost of pharmaceuticals is the huge monopoly profits the pharmas constantly seek. Notice that aspirin and dessicated thyroid (as two examples) are cheap. But that purple pill? Ohh, my.

The cost of pharmaceuticals is an attempt to subsidize development costs, especially costs of all the attempts that don't work out.

Pharmas don't make enormous profits compared to other industries. Compare the pharmaceutical index to the S&P 500. An individual successful drug does, but that's because it's subsidizing the failures. Things off patent, like aspirin, also don't cost much.

Get rid of those monopoly profits, and the current drug development model falls apart, because each individual drug is too risky. Failures in development don't lead to something that a company can sell at all, since the FDA wouldn't approve it. It's not like, say, software or music, where something that isn't a hit can at least be sold.

I suspect we'll be moving towards a model of very low dose drug cocktails. A small enough dose reduces safety concerns while mixing drugs can increase effectiveness. To figure out what works we'll have no alternative to on the job human field testing.

But isn't the FDA merely Big Pharma's economic moat? Let the current drug development model fall apart. It should operate more like software or music, where something that isn't a hit can be sold.

You mean one-hit wonders like Thalidomide?

And thalidomide genuinely was an almost-hit by pharmaceutical standards, though arguably that just made it worse. By contrast, and Slim Whitman notwithstanding, it is rare for even the worst musicians to actually kill their audience. So I'm not as enthusiastic as you about the brave new world of drug development as indie songwriting.

People worry about the end of humanity because of various calamities - disease, nuclear war, peak oil, asteroid impact - but I think the actual end of humanity will come in a few hundred years when we can either upload consciousness into a computer, or come up with perfect virtual reality, or keep people alive and permanently in a state of bliss through designer drugs. Or most likely some combination of those. At that point, sure, there are humans, but to what end?

File this under evidence for the "good" end.

The above comment has been flagged as "old fartery". Evidence: Reverse NLP automated screen scrapper parsed the word "virtual reality" - a pop media construct from the 1980's. [print]

I'm with you. Physical, genetic perfection will come first, largely eliminating disease, deformity and sexual deviancy.

Later, but not all that much later, will come a hangover-free happiness/pacification drug, inserted directly into the water supply and also available in vitamin form.

The above comment has been flagged as “old fartery”. Evidence: Reverse NLP automated screen scrapper parsed the word “water supply” – a pop media construct from a black and white film about a cowboy falling out of a airplane at 30,000'.

Judging by my youth, it's a terrible idea, or does no one use chemistry sets to set off neat explosions these days?

Sadly, explosions are almost impossible with today's sets.

what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs

Distribution, yes. (Though actually making it work, in a plausibly cost-effective way? Not going to hold my breath.)

Discovery? No.

To really discover a pharmaceutical you need a lot more than making a molecule - you need to make quite a bit of it, and have some idea of what you think it might do, and then test that extensively, starting with basic toxicity testing and working your way up to actually doing something useful, and doing it in people.

That is the hard, slow, failure-prone, expensive part, not the "making a molecule" part.

(Expensive especially since there is no way to recoup costs on a failure, other than charging more for the successes...

Could testing be made cheaper? Probably.

Free and instant? No. At least not in the foreseeable future; we're centuries from understanding the body well enough to design a Perfect Molecule from scratch and having it Just Work.

This is also why Mark is wrong - and note that Aspirin would never pass standards now; causes stomach bleeding, in a mild painkiller?

Nobody'd stand for that if it wasn't the first easy non-narcotic analgesic and grandfathered in. It's cheap (and was from the start) because nobody had to expensively develop it; they just had to discover that salicylic acid did that and then synthesize it... from plant extracts rather than from scratch.

No expensive testing regimen, no legion of failed compounds related to it that had to be searched through by blind error at immense cost... and even then it took decades, in the mid-19th century until... huh... a giant pharmaceutical company finally made it work effectively.

Using aspirin as an example against modern pharmaceuticals tells us you don't know what you're talking about, sadly.)

I wish they would do something similar to what they did gamifying protein folding: for example, set up some environment where the molecules obey the interaction laws (to whatever fidelity desirable) and you can perform standard operations on them and see if you can produce a particular kind of molecule. Perhaps have an arsenal of enzymes/catalysts, set concentrations of various components, etc.

Actually, I just wish someone would reply to me now and then :-(

All hype. If he is a true organic chemist, he knows that apart from a toy that makes something really simple, this can't be done. Organic synthesis is unclean and inefficient process that requires extensive purification if intermediates. There is no way around it.

Just looked at his list of publications and, surprise, surprise, he is not an organic chemist. His specialty seems to be organometallics and metal clusters.

can we have print on demand chemicals at home ?
as in NO
for instance, most chemical reactions proceed with 20-80% efficiency; that is, if you mix two chemicals together to make a 3rd, only 20-50% of the starting chemicals get converted to end product
since the starting chemicals are often toxic, that is an issue

Chemical reaction often require anhydrous or anoxic (or both) conditions, hard to do at home (believe me,you think making something oxygen or water free (say ppm levels for sensitive things like isocyanates or NHS esters or phosphoramidites [although the last you can do on the open bench in california or arizona] )is easy, have at it !! there is a lot of money to be made if you can do this !!
Reagents deteriorate - how do you know that chemical is good ? in the lab, you can do TLC, UV-Vis , GC, HPLC, FTIR, MS - which in instrument cost is going from about 100 to 100,000+ dollars [eg, FTIR is Fourier transform infra red spectroscopy - IR, light in the "heat" range, most organic molecules will give characteristic fignerprint with IR spectroscopy, esp carbonyls)

mixing the wrong chemicals can lead to very nasty surprises

some things are easier then they look and some things are harder; 50 years ago, when I was a kid, popualr science had articles about the flying car. still do; still will 50 years from now
In the meantime, somone put in a trillion dollars or so in RnD and made micro electronics.....
home chemistry just ain't happening

They did it on Star Trek, so it must be possible!

I used to wonder how the Enterprise carried enough raw materials and sourced the energy for Picard to order Earl Grey tea whenever he felt like it. In a china cup.

As a practicing industrial chemist, I can tell you this is utter rubbish. Does manufacturing cost a small fraction of the sales price of prescription pharmaceuticals? Yes. Is it still extremely complex and capital intensive? Yes. Does it generate huge amounts of toxic byproducts? For almost all current drugs, yes. Is it highly regulated and will it always be? Yes. Get real!

The only reason I am still alive today is because I got very(!) hardcore horse pils (grey market drugs) after suffering acute/ruptured appendices in Mumbai on a software engineering outsourcing trip. I am a case study at Duke. My surgeon, who does dozens of these operations a week (for 30 years), was shocked at what he found when he opened me up. He is the poster child for 70+ procedural patient encounters a day, i have seen everything, almost retired, almost out of the medial rat race, providers.

So, while I find the "I am trying to spar with economics peeps" grammer very entertaining (have you guys had a linguist study you?), the fact of the matter is, there is already a huge mainstream asian economy, with large factories, doing this, right now. It is simply a matter of reverse engineering (very very very easy) someone else's stuff, and making it in another country. The United States is where it is today because it stole everything ("IP") from the UK 100+ years ago. Documented fact.

So have to say, nice try at trying to get the interest of the FAB LAB, personal fabrication, Maker, Art Installation Artist/Hacker biolab in the garage meme that keeps resurfacing the past few years, but, nobody cares, and it is just a new take on all of that. There is no revolution or new ideas here.

What do we care about?

Making beer. Have you ever tried growing hops in this heat? And beer is the original cure all :)

How in the name of CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgrens, and grocery store pharmacies did this person get the idea that there is a drug distribution bottleneck?

I think we'll see this with 3D printed assault rifle parts way before drugs. Much simpler and 3D printers are already starting to enter the consumer market.

The future of The War on Drugs is a tour with Sharon van Etten in Europe for August pretty much, I'm really hoping when they come back stateside toward the end of the year they add more cities to their schedule (ie, the city where I live), "Slave Ambient" has been one of the better albums I've picked up in the past 6 months.

my reaction to this story when I first heard it was this: Jesus and Allah will come back as BFF butt buddies and hand out perpetual motion machines to every person on earth before the US government and the drug companies that fund it ever allow me to 'print' vicodin and heroin and other such goodies at home.

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