Device Could Provide Deep Space Medicine for Astronauts
Technology Articles 4/20/12
By: Chris Capps
Space stations in the future may not depend on a stockpile of drugs from well stocked medical kits, but rather actually print "on-demand" chemicals for medical purposes. The latest development from scientists may allow future explorers the ability to design and print chemical bonds in a virtual 3D printer. And the limitations of the device don't end with Mars.
The device has been used for a number of applications, including drugs designed to fight cancer - and even a few never before seen compounds. The principle is similar to 3D printers in concept, but applies the technology to the pharmaceutical world. If the device comes to fruition, it could soon mean a change for everything we know about health care. In addition to printing chemicals more effectively, a custom made on-demand drug printing machine could also decimate the cost of medicine around the globe - and give medical access to remote villages in distressed or war-torn regions.
But one of the most promising places the technology, being developed at Glasgow University is the potential use in future space missions. Up until now, the constant need for medicine has been a serious limiting factor for astronauts, as several drugs do not keep well in low gravity - even when sealed well. If the 3D printing technology were sent into space, it could also allow astronauts a better look at developing new compounds that work better in low gravity environments.
Professor Lee Cronin, who published the paper in a recent issue of "Nature," paints a picture of a future where medicine could be completely different from what we see today. But one of the key problems with the invention may lie in the fact that it is simply too technologically advanced for a society not yet ready to integrate a device where drugs can be printed as easily as a spreadsheet is today. Technology very often outpaces the culture it must be integrated into. Of course it still may be some time before we actually see simplified drug printing in a way most homes could handle.
3D printing technology has moved forward in leaps and strides in the past decade with the first self-replicating 3D printers coming about as a result of the Reprap project and other industrial sectors offering more advanced machines for industrial use. To a generation that grew up witnessing the sci-fi world of replicators of Star Trek films, the promises of 3D printing has offered the next best real world alternative. Still, the technology does have limits with many of the projects starting as open source exclusives which require the builder to build the parts themselves.
Will printers such as these be integrated into the ongoing outward stretch toward the stars? With more people in space, more medicine will be required. Included with this will be the need for better healthcare on vessels where medicine may be difficult to cart around. Rather than carrying drugs around with them, future vessels may simply print them as they are needed.