NIH 3D printer project to allow public to create drug models

By Fiona Barry

- Last updated on GMT

A model of the HIV protease printed on a 3D printer at the Scripps Institute
A model of the HIV protease printed on a 3D printer at the Scripps Institute

Related tags: 3d printing, Inkjet printer

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a 3D Print Exchange which will turn data submitted by the public into files for printing 3D models.

Researchers will be able to use the free service to print custom laboratory equipment and models of molecules for use in drug development, among other scientific purposes.

Darrell Hurt, leader of the project and head of Computational Biology within the Bioinformatics facility of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told he turned to 3D printing as “an important way to communicate the complex dimensional geographies​” of medical research.

From there I was able to figure out a way to easily make 3D printable molecules, but it took me a while to do it and it required the computer expertise that not everyone has. So I said, why not make it into something everyone can do?​”

The idea behind the programme is to give experts in other fields the tools to turn their data into 3D printable files without needing informatics experience, he said.

Most medicinal chemists and structural biologists, they’re used to thinking in 3D but they only know how to do it with the software they’re familiar with.​”

After registering, users can upload their data sets, ranging from structural biology to microscopy, and the Print Exchange will turn them into a file which is available in the public domain and free for anyone to browse or download. The printing itself is the responsibility of researchers.

The ‘godfather’ of 3D modelling

Hurt told us the advantage of 3D printing for pharmaceutical researchers is in allowing them to produce iterative designs very quickly: “You don’t need a big factory with specialised machinists. It also gives you some things that can only be made with a 3D printer, such as certain geometries and anything custom – most things in biology actually.​”

While traditional “ball-and-stick” chemistry model sets have been used for decades, they are limited in the geometrical designs they can adopt. “Beyond two or three dozen atoms in a molecule, it starts to get too complicated. There’s no way you could have a kit that’s large enough to make all these models by hand – it would be like an old-fashioned print shop, with individual [blocks].​”

One really neat use of the 3D printing I’ve seen is an idea from Art Olsen [Professor of Molecular Biology at the Scripps Institute, California] who is the godfather of this kind of thing and advisor to our project. You use the 3D printer to create the complicated geometry of a drug binding site. Then when you print out that drug binding site in 3D, you can use commercial chemistry kits – used by students for decades – with little sticks and balls and you put together your potential drugs, and then you manually fit them in.

Of course computer algorithms are good at this but people are very good at pattern recognition. It’s an alternative way to both get some human intuition, and a way to teach and communicate.​”

Industry reluctance?

Hurt acknowledged that there could be some “possible reluctance​” on the part of companies to share information, “but we do provide protection for the data they upload. If somebody has a model that’s printable already that they want to share, the person is able to select a variety of Creative Commons licensing. But obviously we’re not granting copyright.​”

In general, though, he said he was seeing “a real push in the scientific community for ‘open science’, open data – and reproducible science. A lot of evidence suggests up to half of all scientific manuscripts are irreproducible – they’re not detailed enough that someone else could come along and do their [same] research. Even the researchers themselves cannot reproduce it.​”

The printing exchange could make clinical and medical research “more transparent,​” he said, “especially for computational work.​”

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