Investors have been mesmerized -- hook, line, sinker -- by the potential of the 3-D printing industry. With so many industries to disrupt it is easy to see why. Both 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) serve the aerospace, defense, automotive, medical device, architecture, and hobbyist industries, among others. Additionally, there is no shortage of deals to be made for the two largest players in additive manufacturing. 3D Systems recently signed a deal with Planetary Resources to "develop and manufacture components" of its spacecraft, while Stratasys gobbled up MakerBot not too long ago.
Although industrial applications will continue to be the key drivers of growth, both companies are also racing to make 3-D printing accessible to the masses. Before you accept that larger applications will trickle down to disrupt the consumer supply chain of teapot handles and doorknobs, you may want to consider an even more disruptive future that works its way up from a much smaller scale: 3-D printed medicine.
The end of the pharmacy?
It may not be a feature of the first printer you purchase for your home, but your local pharmacy or hospital could soon employ its own manufacturing base. Producing therapeutic compounds on-site could slash costs associated with manufacturing at centralized facilities, transportation of heat- and light-sensitive medicines, and inventory. Shelf life could be greatly improved -- or a thing of the past -- and compounds could even be optimized for individual patients.
How would it work? Instead of using resin as your building material, you would use basic building block chemistry sets: starter compounds with many organic chemistry derivatives, the four base pairs of DNA, or perhaps even single atoms. Add them under the right conditions -- timing, temperature, pH, and the like -- and they would assemble into what the industry calls an active pharmaceutical ingredient, or API.
Several labs strewn across academia and industry are already tackling the idea. Parabon Nanolabs is developing the Essemblix Drug Development Platform with the help of Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), specifically for a novel nano-pharmaceutical compound for prostate cancer. Essemblix looks similar to many other 3-D printing platforms in that it blends software, automation, and hardware to create tailored on-site products. The goal is to strap an API payload to a DNA backbone that will deliver it directly to the area of need.
To further demonstrate how close the technology is to reality, consider the following. For less than the cost of a personal 3-D printer, you can buy a decent polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, machine on eBay, create billions of single-stranded DNA molecules in a matter of hours, and voila!, you are ready to attach your APIs in "step C" above. Easy, right?
Dr. John Craig Venter, the private hand behind the Human Genome Project and founder of disruptive life sciences companies such as Synthetic Genomics, is also developing a 3-D biological printer. His idea is to create a machine that can download the latest vaccines from the Internet, recreate them with chemistry, and provide made-to-order medicine in a matter of hours. The world could finish off the seasonal flu or end a bioterrorist plot in a matter of days with technology like that.
Significant hurdles to cross
To say that 3-D printed medicine is a shoo-in technology for consumers of the future is a bit misguided. The Food and Drug Administration already has a difficult enough time regulating the several hundred million dollar manufacturing facilities of big pharma, so keeping a watchful eye on millions of citizens would be a logistical nightmare. If billion-dollar companies fail to hit quality control specs from time to time, what makes anyone think the guy next door (yeah, that guy) can ace the creation of the flu vaccine every year? Changing just a few molecules on one compound -- even in error -- could transform it from a lifesaver to one with little to no therapeutic edge, or worse.
There is also the threat of targeted mayhem. What if there's an outbreak of a deadly flu strain and hackers sent out digital instructions for a toxic compound just as citizens raced to download, print, and inject the latest vaccine? Yeah, things could go awry pretty quickly. Engineers and regulators have to innovate their way out of these quality control issues before 3-D printed medicines are made in your home.
Foolish bottom line
As with any new technology there are challenges ahead for 3-D printed medicine, but there are also some very obvious rewards for society. I see big pharma companies utilizing the technology before it trickles down to pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals. Perhaps the technology will manage to drastically lower costs for patients, thus alleviating the need for household biological printers altogether. Regardless of where it ends up, disrupting the nearly $1 trillion pharmaceutical industry presents an amazing opportunity for investors to keep an eye on in the coming decade.
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool, to keep up with his writing on energy, bioprocessing, and biotechnology.
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