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This Gadget Lets You Brew Your Own Drugs In Your Kitchen

In the future, you might skip the pharmacy and instead brew your pills with your morning coffee. All it takes is some genetically engineered algae.

It’s 2025, and there’s a strange machine sitting on your kitchen counter next to your toaster. Every morning, it pops out your daily prescription.

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A new prototype shows exactly how future countertop drug manufacturing could work: A glowing cylinder brews blue-green algae, genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. Then it measures, filters, and dries it into a powder that can fill a pill.

It’s only a concept at the moment, but the artist who created it thinks that it could be technically feasible in five or ten years. “Part of my goal of the project is to demonstrate how easy it is to build an at-home system that could ferment microbes,” says Will Patrick, who designed the Farma gadget during a residency at Autodesk.

It’s already possible to brew opiates in a lab. The anti-malarial drug Artemisinin is also mostly made using genetically engineered yeast. It’s not inconceivable to think that synthetic biology could also be used as a cheaper, faster way to make all kinds of other drugs–and potentially make them in unexpected places, like your kitchen.

“The technical challenges lie in genetic engineering and biochemistry–engineering the organisms that can produce the drugs at useful quantities and processing and separating the drugs from the organism,” says Patrick. “However, the cost, tools, and knowledge required for genetically modifying organisms are all becoming more accessible. The hardware required for fermentation is fairly rudimentary in comparison.”

The policy and business challenges are bigger; it’s harder to guarantee that a DIY pill would meet the same quality standards of a factory, and Big Pharma might worry about losing their intellectual property, the synthetic DNA.

“This may happen first illegally,” Patrick says. That would be hard, at least at the moment, since someone would have to get the genetic parts to engineer the drug-making organism. “However, one could imagine something like Darkode for biology popping up.”

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Patrick chose a particular form of algae called spirulina, already commonly used as a supplement, for the prototype. “Spirulina cells modified to produce a drug would serve as both the production factory and delivery mechanism for the drug–no purification required,” he says.

The design of the appliance reflects his own view on the technology. “Honestly, I feel torn between the potential benefits–decentralized, personal control–and the alarming possibility of enabling drug addiction,” he says. “I tried to create a form that reflects this, caught in between something that feels familiar–like a product that could fit nicely on your kitchen counter–and cold, futuristic, and almost radioactive.”

In the end, the project is meant to make people think about how we want synthetic biology to fit into our lives. “My main goal with Farma is to provoke the audience to consider how this new technology should be used,” he says. “I want people to understand what could be possible and help them imagine a possible future.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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