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3D printing to facilitate personalised medicines

Monday, August 10, 2015

Quite recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved the first 3D printed pills. This represents yet another area in which 3D printing is having a disruptive impact.

3D printing, to explain to the uninitiated, really has nothing to do with traditional printing like that which obtains in the case of newspapers, books or the like. It is a technology that builds three-dimensional (3D) physical objects using a “printer-like” processes. The products are built up layer by layer. 

So for instance, if the letter “o” was being printed, the thickness of the letter would really miniscule and therefore if one were to try to measure the height of it when it is printed on a sheet of paper, resting on a flat surface, it would be nigh impossible to so do.

But now imagine that the letter was being formed (“printed”) by a batter being forced through a very fine hole. Imagine the equipment used in cake decorating, particularly those used for writing names or greetings on the top of the cake. 

One can add layers upon layers of icing sugar to make the letters as big or thick as required. Similarly, 3D printing forms shapes by building them layer by layer. 

3D printing is done using dedicated machines naturally called 3D printers. A drawing of the object to be formed is inputted to the printer which then proceeds to convert this into a programme of actions to form the object by depositing powder or a chemical mixture, one layer at a time. It is thus ideal for manufacturing one-off items or small batches.

Pharmaceuticals are normally mass manufactured, with millions of identical tablets being produced, at fixed strength or dosage. 

This might be, for example, one milligram or five etc. So physicians have no choice but to prescribe them accordingly. But has it ever struck you as strange that despite our differences in age, health, weight, etc, the same dose or multiples of it are prescribed? In other words, a “one size fits all” approach.

Before the mass production of pharmaceuticals, medicine was of a more personalised nature. The drug would be made in a strength to suit the degree of the illness of the person. The advent of 3D printing will now re-facilitate the advent of personalised medicine by producing tablets (of the medicinal variety that is) on demand.

One of the advantages of producing 3D printed pills is that layers of medication can be packaged more tightly in precise doses, up to one thousand milligrams in individual tablets. Another would be the production of tablets nearer to the patient. This would have positive cost implications with respect to shipping, storage and inventory management. 

As the production of the pills, like all 3D products, as driven by software, it would be possible to adjust the dosage and number of pills before the production run. 

Of course, the pharmaceutical mixtures would have to be properly stored on site and the company that owns the drug would need to have control over the quality and quantity being produced. In effect, the business model would change as the production sites would now be distributed. 

The disruptive nature of the 3D printing technology would extend into the production of pharmaceuticals and the practice of medicine itself. It is causing far-reaching changes in variety of industries from manufacturing to medicine, similar to that caused by digital file sharing.

Like the revolution caused by the array of digital technologies, society stands to benefit. 3D printing of pills would facilitate the re-introduction, on a large scale, of personalised medicine by lowering its cost. Up till now, personalised medicine was beyond reach of the average citizen. This technology would change that. It can and will therefore be one more tool in bringing quality healthcare to one and all.


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