3D printing has the potential to be a highly disruptive technology when applied to pharmaceutical manufacturing. In addition to enabling the production of more effective dose formats, the technology is likely to play a key part in the pharmaceutical industry’s move towards low-volume production and personalised medicine.
Until recently, tablet designs had been restricted to the relatively small number of shapes that are easily achievable using traditional manufacturing methods. 3D printing is now enabling much more innovation in this area, with many researchers investigating the kinetic properties of shapes that were once very difficult to manufacture. 3D printed pyramid-shaped tablets, for instance, may gain popularity as a format for fast-acting remedies because they have been found to release drugs more rapidly than standard cylinder-shaped pills.
The versatility of 3D printers is already being used to give some drug creators unprecedented control over their product’s shape and structure. One innovator in this field is Aprecia, which recently became the first pharmaceutical company to release a 3D printed product. Its ZipDose orodispersible tablets are built up from structured layers of powdered medication, printed and bound together with an aqueous fluid. The result is a porous matrix that dissolves completely within seconds of contacting liquid, even when the format is used for high-dose products.
Researchers are also keen to develop ways of fabricating active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) using printers. Scientists working with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have developed a new 3D printer that can synthesise 14 different classes of small molecule using a set of chemical building blocks. While it is currently more suited to producing rare molecules for use in drug discovery, the technology could be used to produce a wide range of APIs on demand for use in medicine.
If these 3D printing technologies become viable on a commercial scale, the potential for cost-savings is immense. Developments in API printing could eventually eliminate the need for manufacturers to buy or lease specific processing equipment for each of the stages involved in producing a molecule, allowing them to instead carry out all of the necessary reactions within one very versatile machine.
Smaller batches will also be much more economical to print than to manufacture using traditional methods, reducing the cost of formulating drugs to treat rare conditions or to test in clinical trials, and facilitating innovations in the field of personalised medicine.
Going a step further, on-demand drug-printing facilities at clinics and pharmacies, or even in patients’ homes, could allow doctors to improve treatment by creating tailored dosing regimens. Patients who take several different types of medication, for instance, could have the active ingredients consolidated into one tablet to reduce their pill burden, while patients who would benefit from non-standard or changeable doses could have these printed when required.
This would have a particular impact on paediatrics. Although solid doses are the industry’s preferred format, most children’s medicines are administered as oral liquids because mass-producing the range of solid dose strengths required to treat children of different ages is impractical. In addition to varying in strength, 3D-printed solid doses could be personalised with individual colours, flavours and shapes to appeal to individual children and boost their adherence.
Most importantly, it is also hoped that versatile, distributed drug manufacturing will bring down production and logistics costs to make medicines more affordable and widely available to patients in developing countries. The ability to print tablets in situ using an official file from a doctor should also help to protect patients from dangerous counterfeit drugs.
As 3D printing capabilities develop further, safety and regulatory concerns are addressed and the cost of the technology falls, contract manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies that experiment with these 3D printing innovations are likely to gain a competitive edge.