Evangelists of 3D printing tip the technology to reshape organ transplants, orthopedics and multiple other areas of medicines, with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) among the companies trying to turn hype into reality. And now the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has joined the sector, adding a 3D model creation service to help drug researchers who lack computing skills.
Researchers can upload molecular data, medical images or microscopy outputs and NIH will convert the information into a 3D print file. Anyone with the relevant computer know-how can do this without the service, but the man behind the project, NIH computational biology chief Darrell Hurt, said the idea was to open up 3D printing to researchers who lack these skills.
Hurt said: “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?” Visitors to the NIH 3D Print Exchange can also download files shared by other people. The site currently has a mix of molecules, bones, organs and research tools.
The research tools have the most obvious, immediate uses for drug research. The NIH is already using 3D printed components to upgrade or repair its technology, for example by improving a robot that grips compound plates at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The component went from idea to reality in just a few hours.
3D printouts of bones and organs have implications for teaching and surgery, while Hurt said models of molecules can help researchers gain a new understanding of the chemical structure. Hurt cited the use of 3D printing by Art Olson of the Scripps Research Institute as an example of how physical models of molecules can aid understanding.
“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,” Hurt said.
Computers can already predict such drug-binding site interactions, but Hurt sees benefits in taking a more hands-on approach. Biopharma companies wanting to test the idea will likely use in-house capabilities, with Hurt acknowledging “possible reluctance” from industry to upload their structures to a third-party site. The NIH offers a range of Creative Commons licenses and encourages openness.