Print it, swallow it, and you’re well? Medications from the 3D printer are far from science fiction these days. The first 3D printed medication was approved for marketing in the USA in August 2015. What can this new technology contribute to drug production? Dr Julian Quodbach, who works at the Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Biopharmacy at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, and will be a speaker at POWTECH 2016 in Nuremberg, explains why pills from the printer may be better for patients.
At POWTECH 2016, the leading trade show for mechanical process technology, production experts from the pharmaceutical industry and many other sectors gather to experience the latest technologies first-hand and talk shop. One of those who will be reporting on the benefits and opportunities of 3D printing technology is Dr Julian Quodbach. He’s one of a small group of researchers worldwide who are advancing this young technology in the pharmaceutical industry.
Mr Quodbach, will we be printing out our own medications at home some day?
That’s rather unlikely. A realistic scenario is that within just a few years, hospitals and pharmacies will have 3D printers. That will enable pharmacists to prepare unique preparations precisely attuned to the patient. Very widespread standard medications like classic headache tablets will still be made significantly more economically with conventional mass production methods. But where 3D printing becomes really attractive is in critical, very complex or very rarely used medications.
What’s the advantage of individual 3D printing for those drugs?
First of all, the technology makes it possible to achieve higher drug loads – meaning more active ingredient in smaller tablets. That’s especially important for people who have trouble swallowing, the elderly, and children. Also, 3D printing makes it possible to develop tablets that disintegrate very easily. That too makes them easier to swallow. The 3D-printed medication now approved in the USA is in that category. An even more interesting aspect is the broad field of customisation. 3D printing makes it possible to produce medications in a vast range of forms – such as preparations that would fit precisely into the ear canal. Since the pharmacist would be printing the tablets in different sizes, he could also produce customised dosages. And it’s also conceivable to combine multiple active ingredients in a single tablet, so patients have to take only one tablet instead of five.
Very specifically, then: what technical processes are there for printing medications?
Dr Julian Quodbach, Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Biopharmacy at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf / photo: private source
Several universities all over the world are now at work researching processes – it’s a genuine hot topic. There are experiments with printing active ingredients onto a support line by line, as in conventional inkjet printing. Other institutions are experimenting with pastes that the 3D printer applies in layers and hardens. Another possibility – one we’re working on in Düsseldorf: the active ingredient is encapsulated in thin polymer strands – filaments. You can imagine them like nylon threads on a spool. These threads then “feed” the print head in the 3D printer.
Can you name any examples or applications for which 3D printing would be especially worthwhile?
There are certain antibiotics, for example, whose dosages and levels in the blood have to be monitored very closely. If the dosage is too low, it won’t work, but if it’s just slightly too high, the drug can cause a great deal of damage. With 3D printing, a hospital pharmacy could easily make tablets with the perfect dosage. Another example is what are known as “orphan” drugs – medications that are needed by fewer than 5 out of every 10,000 people. With 3D printing, these very rarely needed medications could be offered cost-effectively, and in different dosages.
How long do you think it will take until medication printers are ready for the market, and patients can pick up their individual tablet dosages at the chemist’s?
From a technical viewpoint, safe, low-risk printing of some medications will be feasible within the next two to four years. But it could take a few years beyond that before pills really start rolling out of the 3D printer at hospitals. Pharmaceutical production is one of the most heavily regulated industries. Meeting those regulatory requirements – from hygiene to production safety – at decentralised locations like a hospital or pharmacist’s is quite another story.
3D printing at POWTECH 2016
Dr Julian Quodbach will give his presentation on “The current status of 3D printing in pharmaceutical dosage form manufacturing” at 11.30 a.m. on 20 April 2016 during the “Pharma.Manufacturing.Excellence” industry forum in Hall 3A.
Click here for the programme of fields and presentations at POWTECH…