A new molecule-making machine developed by a team at the University of Illinois is a breakthrough in the chemistry field, as it could potentially speed up the development of new drugs, a new study says.

Researchers equate the new machine to a 3D printer, in that it can assemble complex small molecules at the click of a mouse. "Small molecules" are a specific class of complex, compact chemical structures found throughout nature that play a very important part in modern medicines. That is, most medications available now are small molecules, not to mention they are key elements in technologies like solar cells and LEDs.

It normally takes years to figure out how to make just one small molecule, and that's before it can even be developed into a medicine or technology. But now, with this new automated machine, researchers can potentially speed up this process, and quickly develop new drugs and technologies that rely on small molecules.

"We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple," Martin D. Burke, who led the research, said in a statement. "Simplicity enables automation, which, in turn, can broadly enable discovery and bring the substantial power of making molecules to nonspecialists."

So how exactly did Burke and his team take something so complex and make it as simple as possible?

They broke down the complex molecules into smaller building blocks that can be easily assembled. But the real key is that all the chemical building blocks have the same connector piece, so they can be stitched together with one simple reaction.

With this novel approach, the new machine could build 14 different classes of small molecules, including ones with difficult-to-manufacture ring structures.

The molecule-making machine is currently being used to develop anti-fungal medications, but researchers hope that it will soon be applied to other therapeutic areas as well.

The new machine is described in more detail in the journal Science.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).