Ball and Socket Model Print (Source: Author)

From printing prosthetic limbs for children in need and wounded war vets, to modeling the human ear for students, the impact of 3D printing permeates the media, the classroom, and hospitals. As we previously reported, discussion and development are now being focused on the pharmaceutical industry.

The majority of pills prescribed to patients come in only a handful of shapes and doses. This one-size-fits-all approach can be a challenge for patients who require constant adjustments to their doses of medication. This results in multiple trips to the doctor, pharmacy, and bank.

Why Shapes Matter: 

The shape and size of a pill may seem inconsequential, but they actually have an effect on how that medication interacts with the patient's body. The ability to further customize a pill and its dosage, though, can be difficult based on the traditional powder compaction method. The positive effects of customization are one of the newest focuses at the University College London School of Pharmacy. Partnering with FabRx Ltd. the two have published a paper wherein they detail how 3D printing can be used to produce pills that are complexly shaped. This, they hope, will encourage a movement away from "mass production of tablets/capsules" toward drugs "personalized to the patient."

Devices made from 3D printed materials have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use internally in humans; even those printed from living cells. However, emergency clearance has been given from the FDA in certain cases.

Building "Downloadable" Medications:

Many individuals, such as Lee Cronin (pictured below) from the University of Glasgow, hope to help create safe and accessible 3D printed medications. Within the next 20 years, Cronin hopes to bring downloadable prescriptions and 3D printable drugs into our homes. The idea is to create an online pharmacy where patients can purchase a downloadable file and the necessary chemical-infused filament.

Lee Cronin (Source)

To create the special filament, a water-soluble PVA is needed (like this). The filament (which will eventually break down inside the body) is cut into pieces, mixed with Tylenol and salts, then extruded to completion. Researchers have been able to print pills in various shapes, ranging from a pyramid to a perfect sphere thus far.

Dangerous Dealings:

As with any new technology, especially those that deal with drugs, criticism is inevitable. Recreational drug users, for example, will potentially have access to blueprints for building illegal drugs, which may someday be as easily accessible as torrents for new episodes of Game of Thrones. Of course, some individuals have pointed out the silver linings: no need to visit drug dealers on a regular basis to obtain potentially harmful street drugs (not to mention the crippling effect it may have on the illegal drug industry). However, it poses the same dangers your typical movie download does. Someday the downloadable instructions may come paired with a virus, or the drug file could simply be corrupt, resulting in low-grade, or potentially dangerous products.

How It Works:

Bringing digital creations that are rendered on a computer into the physical world might be easier than you think. Each 3D printer works differently, but the model used in these studies—the MakerBot Replicator—uses a spool of hard plastic as its basic medium. When the printer receives the message to begin building, the plastic (filament) is pulled through a tube and into an extruder. This piece heats up to about 400 °F (204 °C) and deposits the filament through a small hole onto the base. Next, the nozzle passes over the platform-depositing material, layer by layer, until the finished product is formed. As the layers are created, they fuse to create a solid object.

A 3D-printed pill (via MakerBot Industries)

This entire process is automated and requires little user interaction (unless the filament jams—then most of the interaction is just cursing). Printing can take from a few minutes to a day, depending on the complexity of the piece and the size.  Some objects are hollow, while others have a honeycomb-shaped inner structure. Some are solid, or require additional supports due to extra detail or protrusions. These variables can drastically alter printing times. I would estimate that each pill could be completed in under 15 minutes.

Potential Impact:

As stated, a pill's shape plays a major role in how drugs are released throughout the body. In the study by the University College London School of Pharmacy, drugs were released at the highest rate by the pyramid-shaped tablet. The cylinder and sphere, perhaps the most common pill shapes, actually release medication the slowest out of all of the shapes studied.

The pills that were studied (Source)

Though the issues of potential illegal use and distribution still need to be addressed, the ability to customize a drug for a more steady release rate could have a much-needed positive impact on the pharmaceutical industry. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not the technology ultimately goes the distance.

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