May 26, 2016 | By Alec

Even though 3D bioprinted tissue implants are still a few years away, there are other ways in which 3D printing can change the medical world as we know it. 3D printed medical devices are already occasionally used in hospitals around the world, while researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have just realized a major breakthrough in the field of 3D printed pharmaceuticals. With their low-cost production setup, they can now 3D print pills with customized dosage and release rates, which can be produced specifically for each and every patient.

Of course this isn’t the first time researchers have tried to 3D print prescription drugs. In the last year, 3D printed liquid pills have been made to make swallowing pills easier for children, while the FDA approved the first 3D printed prescription drug (a dissolvable tablet to treat seizures), and a team of researchers developed a system to personalize dosages through 3D printed medication.

But this new breakthrough stands out for its ability to customize release rates, which is currently impossible to control. Conventional tablets can only maintain a constant rate of release, meaning that patients have to manually cut pills in pieces and take them throughout the day. Hormone drugs, for instance, need to be taken at very regular intervals. But this can be difficult to keep track of, especially if a patient is using multiple drugs simultaneously, or is suffering from memory loss. What’s more, different clinical circumstances may require different release rates, and only a narrow range of concentration might be effective for the patient. Arthritis drugs, for instance, need to release a large dose to initially act against targets, followed by lower levels. For many other drugs, missing a dose can even be potentially dangerous.

While some production methods already provide a modicum of control over release rates, they are all very limited. The biggest problem is that drugs aren’t very durable and break down relatively quickly. But with this new NUS breakthrough, drugs with customized release rates can be produced cheaper and easier, and provide a far greater range of control. This new fabrication method was developed by Assistant Professor Soh Siow Ling and PhD student Sun Yajuan from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering. Theoretically, any desired release profile is possible to 3D print with this new method.

The drugs have been dyed red (all images: NUS).

As Professor Soh Siow Ling argued, it can change the pharmaceutical industry entirely. “For a long time, personalized tablets has been a mere concept as it was far too complex or expensive to be realized. This new tablet fabrication method is a game changer – it is technically simple, relatively inexpensive and versatile. It can be applied at individualized settings where physicians could produce customized pills on the spot for patients, or in mass production settings by pharmaceutical companies,” the professor said.

To achieve this level of customizability, the tablets are not just 3D printed layer by layer. Instead, the drugs consist of several distinct components, with a surface-eroding polymer shell whose design will determine the release rate. A five-pronged shape, for instance, will allow the drug to be released in five pulses. By adjusting the shape of the shell, any rate can be theoretically realized. Even multiple drugs could be stored in a single pill. The doctor simply needs to draw up a desired profile in customized software, which will generate a 3D printable template. The system is easy to use, and does not involve any complex software steps, the researchers say.

What’s more, they used a commercially available $2,000 3D printer to make this process as cheap as possible – making it a realistic alternative for conventional tablet production or photolithography. The 3D printer is used to create a silicone mold, which is filled with a liquid containing the drug. That liquid is cured and solidified, creating a pill with one (or more) open faces. Any remaining space can then also be filled with drug-containing liquids and again be cured. Depending on the final shape and the amount of openings, a very specific release rate can be achieved.

The NUS team is currently exploring more material combination options in an attempt to optimize drug delivery efficiency, while they are also looking into various commercialization options with industry partners. Their research has already been published in the Advanced Materials journal in late 2015, and a patent has been filed already. Professor Soh said that they are envisioning 3D printers being set up in hospitals and neighborhood clinics to reach patients at a local level. Could these be the drugs of the future?

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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