What do Super Mario Bros., E.T., Transformers, Bon Jovi, Pac-man, and 3D printing all have in common? Well for starters, all of the above came straight out of the 80’s. While some of the above are nothing but a mere memory, others are still alive and kicking. And no…I’m not talking about Bon Jovi’s recent DIRECTV commercial. I’m talking about 3D printing. It’s still riding the 80’s nostalgia bandwagon and has been transforming faster than Optimus Prime’s transformations. 3D printing is poised to revolutionize manufacturing and science.
Over the past 30 years, 3D printing has been constantly evolving and tapping into new markets such as consumer goods, medical models, art, and other gadgets. These innovative creations are knocking down boundaries like Mario with a Super Star power-up. Now, 3D pill printing is one of the newer applications. However, 3D printing is not necessarily a new concept in the science industry. Within the past few years, the buzz around 3D printed prosthetic limbs technology has been hitting headlines across the world.
But now 3D printed pills are catching the industry’s attention. In a short time, 3D pills have gone from science-fiction to real-world prototypes. According to a Strategy+Business article, “[p]rototypes and projects have been in development for several years. In 2012, Craig Venter, the scientist best known for sequencing the human genome, unveiled a plan to develop 3D-printable vaccines. And University of Glasgow professor Lee Cronin has already started two companies that aim to develop and test processes for drug manufacture using 3D printing technology….gel-based “inks” — including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, vegetable oils, paraffin, and other ingredients — to create uniform molecules that can be combined in different formulations.”
In 2015, the FDA approved the 1st 3D printed prescription pill for consumer consumption and other treatments are in development. So what is the outlook for the pharma industry? Well for starters, 3D pill approval process unfortunately is slow and quality standards are more stringent since the product enters the human body. However, like the smash hit Super Mario Maker, 3D printing isn’t just a game changer, it’s a means to recreate the game and everything in it. Here are some key factors for 3D pill printing in the pharma sector:
- Dissolvability: The composition of 3D pills allow for almost instant dissolvability when coming into direct contact with liquid. From a competitive perspective, this could be a key differentiator in the market. In addition to this, quick dissolvability would enable treatments to be more effective in situations where time is of the essence.
- Customization: Medical providers could potentially take a new approach to treatment, as they would have the ability to quickly procure pills measured in appropriate doses and produced to meet the requirements for a specific patient or patient group. Better yet, ever get sick of remembering to take 5 pills each morning? Have no fear, your 5 drugs could be created into 1 easy pill.
- Accessibility: Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow, foresees great advances in accessibility for end–users which includes potentially printing your medication in the courtesy of your own home. Before you start getting excited, keep in mind that before heading down that path legal and regulatory changes will have to be put into place.
- Costs & Production: Although economy of scale would be lost, 3D printing would allow for more efficiency through lower inventory and less waste and capital tied into sprawling factories. Nimbly producing drugs on-demand could ultimately lead to lower overall production costs, or, might provide a cost-effective solution to produce a niche drug that has been costly to produce in the past. As explained by Business + Strategy “[i]n the past, companies that couldn’t afford a global operations network had to outsource the production of their drugs to third-party contract manufacturers. The advent of cheaper, faster, safer drug manufacturing will ripple out to this group. To avoid obsolescence, they will need to embrace these innovations and enhance their own service offerings. Supply chains will also evolve. With smaller factories and faster production cycles, pharma companies will be able to produce drugs much closer to where they’re needed. The industry can expect to see lower inventories, corresponding reductions in warehouse costs, and shorter transportation routes.”
Already, there are more than 50 active patents related to pharmaceutical applications for 3D printing. As mentioned by the Washington Post, “the pharmaceutical industry could eventually witness a transition from prescriptions to algorithms….These algorithms would include information about the set of chemical inks needed to print the medicine as well as the molecular blueprints.” This is truly a game-changer in the industry. We’re witnessing a turning point toward taking more targeted approaches toward treating patient’s symptoms on a customized level, whether it’s through 3D printing, immunotherapy, or personalized medicine. If scientists can pull off this combo, society as a whole will reap the benefits.