Of all the ways to deliver medication, the most widely recognized is probably the humble pill. Aside from their color, size, and flatness, there is not a lot to differentiate one pill from another.
However, recent research suggests that the shape of the pill actually can affect how it is absorbed into the body. This is significant because the dosage and time-release requirements for a drug often depend on each patient’s particular case. The relationship between drug release kinetics and a tablet’s shape offers doctors a way to fine-tune how that drug is administered to a particular patient.
The problem arises with the manufacturing of these novel forms of the pill. Bulk production is generally not a viable approach, given the great number of patients with different needs. Moreover, some shapes are simply impossible to manufacture with standard techniques.
Scientists at the UCL School of Pharmacy at University College London have identified a possible solution: 3-D printing. Using a process called “hot melt extrusion,” researchers have been able to produce pharmaceuticals in a wide variety of unusual shapes.
Three-dimensional printing is not new to the field of medicine. This sort of technology has already found other uses throughout the health care industry, including such applications as prosthetic limbs and artificial joints. Indeed, in many surgical subspecialties, 3-D printing is proving disruptive. Could it prove to be disruptive for the pharmaceuticals industry, as well?
From the perspective of drug makers and pharmacists, applying 3-D printing technology to medication distribution has the potential to keep costs down for the consumer and make many drugs more widely available, especially in remote areas. The limiting factor, of course, is the cost of the 3-D printer itself and raw materials. Moreover, there are competing avenues of research that also promise to provide highly customized medications, including genomic screening.
Whether the industry ultimately adopts the 3-D printing approach to medication depends on how it impacts businesses’ bottom line. While the procedure works fine in a lab operating on a small scale, turning it into a marketable product still requires some advancements in printer speeds and efficiencies– and that will require time and money.
Perhaps more importantly, how the tech is received by health insurance companies and benefits managers will ultimately determine how marketable it is. If they can justify including it in their benefits packages, 3-D printing of medications may have a bright future.