The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include a new age in 3D printing, new microscopes give scientists more clarity and boosting drug production using genetic modification

By Iveta Ivanova

3D Printed Medicine

Exciting news from the world of chemistry is highlighting the emerging role of 3D printing. Any process which uses computer control to create a three-dimensional object by layering material, is known as 3D printing. Some of the most common application in Healthcare include prosthetics, dentistry, hearing aids and pre-surgery training.

3D printing of tablets has the potential to combat some of the challenges encountered by the pharmaceutical industry 

A possibly lesser known application of 3D printers is that of medicine manufacturing. It is possible to create a tablet with unique properties that cannot be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods. Although 3D printing is unlikely to replace common place pharma manufacturing any time soon, it can offer useful alternatives and unique solutions in niche areas.

In 2015 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first, and only, 3D printed tablet, which is a highly porous layered reconstruction of a common anti-epileptic seizure drug. The benefit of this tablet is that it has the ability to disperse in the mouth within seconds – a highly advantageous property for patients who experience difficulties swallowing pills.

Another area where 3D printing might prove useful is the manufacturing of the so-called “orphan” drugs – drugs developed to treat very specific and rare medical conditions. Currently pharmaceutical companies invest in highly specialised equipment to produce such tablets, of which very low numbers are sold. Because of the very long and costly process of bringing a drug to the market (10+ years and tens of millions of pounds), it is often difficult to find sponsors for the development of such drugs. 3D printing can offer a cost-effective solution by giving the option to print a large number of different types of tablets, simply by changing the “ingredients” used in the printing process.

Finally, pharma industry is looking to implement 3D bioprinting in their discovery process – a process of 3 dimensional printing of cell groups for high throughput screening. A 3D cell assay provides a more realistic view of the cellular environment than the traditional way of growing cells alone on a flat surface, which can help researchers and clinicians identify toxicity issues much more quickly.

For more detailed information on the process of 3D tablet manufacturing and other applications, check out the full article here.

3D Movies of Living Cells Deep Inside Living Tissue

Scientists have used simple microscopes to observe live cells for centuries. Thanks to advancements in microscopy techniques it is now possible to observe single cells at unprecedented detail, even at single-molecule level.

For many applications, however, observing living cells in real tissue would be highly advantageous, as the full three-dimensional complexity and cell-cell communication network is taken into account. Such deep tissue imaging has proved challenging to achieve in practice because of the strict instrument requirements this necessitates, such as very high speed of imaging to catch cell movement in 3D, laser power and ability to excite and collect light from cells deep inside living tissue.

The most recent development proposed to overcome these challenges was reported earlier this month. A team of scientists led by Eric Betzig of Janelia Research Campus, have combined two microscopy techniques in order to capture 3D movies of live cells in their native environment. They combined adaptive optics and lattice light sheet microscopy – a fluorescence technique which illuminates the sample with an ultrathin laser sheet. Adaptive optics is a technique typically used in astronomical telescopes and works by eliminating the effects of optical aberrations – objects blocking the light, often a major nuisance and huge limitation in high resolution imaging.  This has allowed them to capture detailed movies of individual cells moving inside zebrafish, as well as brain cells making connections and watching cells take in chemicals.

This is an exciting step forward in the drive to be able to watch the natural processes of cells right inside the body.

Neuron cells inside the spinal cord of zebrafish embryo.
Credit: T. Liu et al./Science 2018

For more information on the technique and to check out the videos, see the full article here.

Genetically Modifying Plants to Fight Malaria

Many of the active ingredients in the drugs we use today were originally discovered in plants. Some, such as the drug against malaria are still produced this way. Utilising mother nature to help us in the fight against disease is a powerful tool, however as it is a natural process it can provide some challenges. In the case of the malaria drug, the compound is effective in fighting malaria, however the levels in the plant are quite low, meaning we need a lot of plants to produce a small amount of drugs. Genetic engineering is one way scientists are tackling this problem.

In 1972 Chinese chemist Youyou Tu identified the naturally occurring substance artemisinin as a key ingredient in the fight against malaria, earning her the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2015.

malaria plant
Artemisia annua contains antimalaria drug artemisinin

Artemisinin is derived from the leaves of sweet wormwood plants, also known as Artemisia annua, which are widely encountered across Asia as well as other continents. Therefore, it may seem that obtaining this antimalarial compound should be straightforward enough. Unfortunately it is not. It makes up only 0.1 to 1 percent of the plant’s dry weight – making its extraction challenging.

Scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University turned to genetic engineering in the search of a solution. They identified the three genes crucial for production of artmisinin and performed genetic modifications, finally boosting the natural drug’s levels to 3.1 percent, as reported in Molecular Plant this week.

The modified plant is currently being cultivated in Madagascar, in the hopes of solving the unstable supply of Artemisia annua worldwide.

Read the full article here.