As part of the science trends in 2018 series, we’re taking a deep dive to investigate the potential impact of 3D printed pills.
For most people, 3D printing is still a bit of a curiosity. From 3D selfies, to replicas of ancient
Egyptian statues, few would believe that 3D printing could have an impact in the pharmaceutical
and life sciences industries.
Over the last 50 years, the way drugs have been produced has stayed the same. Pharmaceutical
companies produce pills in factories in bulk, then ship them to hospitals and pharmacies, with the
patient receiving the same pill every time they go to pick up their repeat prescription.
With the rise of 3D printing, there is now the possibility to bring manufacturing closer to the
people who need them, as well as allowing for better, and more personalised drugs. The impact of
3D printing for the pharmaceutical industry is potentially huge.
The birth of the 3D printed pill
In 2015 the first ever 3D printed pill — Spritam —was approved by the FDA in the US, and
released for general use in 2016. Spritam is developed by US pharmaceutical company Aprecia,
and is far from a novelty product.
Not only is it the first mass-produced 3D printed pill, it has positively impacted the lives of people
who suffer with epileptic seizures. Though the drug itself is not new, the packaging it comes in is.
Aprecia’s ZipDose 3D printing technology has created a more porous pill.
What this means in real terms is that the drug can be released faster and more accurately into the
body. When an epileptic fit occurs, it means that the seizure can be ended in a faster, more
effective way than a conventional pill. It is also much easier to swallow higher doses at once.
Spritam is not only a game changer for people living with epilepsy, it formed the start of a new era
in drug production.
3D printed medicine: the next steps
It is not just pharmaceutical companies in the US who are changing medicine, UK-based
company FabRX is taking the foundations of 3D printing to new, advanced levels.
FabRX, with its Printlets technology, are pushing the capabilities of 3D printed drugs beyond what
Aprecia did in 2015. Not only does they have the capabilities to produce drugs with 3D printers,
they combine multiple drugs into one easy-to-take pill — something the company calls polypill.
Whilst this might not seem revolutionary, it could make a significant difference to the lives of the
elderly people and children. For those who have to take a lot of medication, it could save them
time, space and free up the mental capacity needed to remember what pills they need to take.
The technology also happens to be incredibly precise, which means that mistakes aren’t made in
the combination process.
FabRX is also experimenting with the form of the drugs themselves. From chewable, jelly-like pills
for children, to drugs that dissolve in the mouth for people who struggle swallowing, the company
could make the future of medicine simpler, more effective and highly personalised.
There are some in the industry who see a future of pharmaceuticals that takes personalisation to
another level, however…
The weird world of the Chemputer
Professor Lee Cronin of Glasgow University is the inventor of the ‘Chemputer’ — a 3D printer that
takes the technology to new levels. Like other 3D printers used for medicine, it works through
inputting formulaic quantities of chemicals, quickly producing almost any prescription drug,
Where the Chemputer goes one step further lies in Professor Lee Cronin’s lofty vision. Essentially,
his goal is to produce downloadable chemistry. Every patient could print their personalised
medication in their own home. If successful, his vision could revolutionise and democratise the
distribution of healthcare. Drugs could be produced in any country, under any condition, at any
Whilst there could be issues related to drug patents, the vision is one that could change the
pharmaceutical industry forever. Potentially, It could be the pharmaceutical industry’s answer to
Google or Facebook, with the prospect to change the way drugs are made and distributed across
Today, Cronin’s ambitions haven’t come to full fruition as of yet. But when it does,
thousands of lives could be saved worldwide.