A breakthrough molecule-making machine could act as the 3-D printer of chemistry.

The machine can assemble incredible complex molecule structures on command, which could lead to the creation of new drugs and other technologies that require the use of small molecules, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported.

"We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple," said Burke, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist. "Simplicity enables automation, which, in turn, can broadly enable discovery and bring the substantial power of making molecules to nonspecialists."

Small molecules have proven to be extremely difficult to create in a lab in the past, and can often take years to be developed.

"Up to now, the bottleneck has been synthesis," Burke said. "There are many areas where progress is being slowed, and many molecules that pharmaceutical companies aren't even working on, because the barrier to synthesis is so high."

To simplify these complex molecules, the researchers broke them down into much smaller "building blocks" that can be assembled into structures. Many of these building blocks developed in the lab are commercially available.

To automate these building blocks, the research team devised a "catch-and-release" method that stacks one piece at a time, and rinses away any excess components before adding the next. The machine allowed the scientists to build 14 different classes of small molecule, even those that have been difficult to manufacture in the past.

The researchers plan to begin using this new technology in the research of anti-fungal medications.

"It is expected that the technology will similarly create new opportunities in other therapeutic areas as well, as the industrialization of the technology will help refine and broaden its scope and scalability," Burke said.

"Perhaps most exciting, this work has opened up an actionable roadmap to a general and automated way to make most small molecules. If that goal can be realized, it will help shift the bottleneck from synthesis to function and bring the power of making small molecules to nonspecialists," he concluded.

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Science.