3D Printing in Medicine - From Drug Delivery & Custom Printed Medicine to New Business Models



3D printing has penetrated almost every vertical within healthcare, including medicine. Surgical practices and educational institutes alike have already seen their fair share of 3D printed medical models for procedure preparation, but what about drug delivery systems?


Even as you read this, additive manufacturing is being used to take drug delivery to the next step, through personalized tablets or longer-term infusion implants. One major advantage that 3D printing provides is the ability to custom print medical devices including drug delivery systems with nanometer-scale precision.


The rise of personalized oral medicine


When talking about 3D printed oral medication, the company leading the charge is FabRx. The University College London (UCL) spin-out first introduced its M3DIMAKER system at an exhibition in Switzerland late last year - a printer specially designed to 3D print personalized tablets. Using the machine, medical professionals can prepare 28 printlets, or one month’s medication, in approximately 8 minutes depending on the drug. The company can make custom pills in various forms including chewable pills, polypills and fast dissolving tablets. It can also control the dosages, shapes, sizes and release profiles based on clinical needs.


But why the need to 3D print oral medication? Well, modern tablets are typically mass manufactured using conventional formative methods, creating dosage forms with identical dosage and release profiles. The distribution of identical tablets in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner can lead to side effects from excessive dosage or a lack of treatment from under-dosing patients. This is especially true when treating minors, where tablets are often halved or quartered to roughly meet dosage requirements.


By 3D printing patient-specific dosage forms, the need for age and physique-dependent medical formulations can be met more optimally. Patient-specific dosage profiles coupled with the ability to produce polypills – multiple medications combined into single printlets – allows for the treatment of patients with a greater degree of precision and accuracy.


The same principles can be applied to vitamin tablets, where UK-based Nourished has found its niche. The company, based on its customers’ individual needs, 3D prints personalized vitamin gummies characterized by their flashy colorful bands. Each band represents a different nutrient and a single multivitamin can contain up to seven distinct bands. Interestingly, Nourished operates on a novel subscription-based service, where customers pay around 40 GBP to get their monthly fix - a business model that we could see taking off in the coming years.


Multiply Labs is another company providing customized medicine through a subscription based model. The US based start-up has a fully automatic robotic manufacturing system, which can 3D print personalized medicine at a large scale. The company 3D prints capsules with accurate dosage of multiple medicine that can be released independently, enabling patients to take just one pill, which can take care of all their medical needs.



The 3D printing of skin contact devices


Taking a slightly different approach to drug delivery, Neutrogena, the American skincare brand of the multinational healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, introduced its customizable 3D printed medicated face masks just last year. Dubbed the MaskiD, the novel beauty product uses photographs taken from a user’s smartphone to micro 3D print a face mask suited to the user’s skin type and desired treatment - all according to the customer’s facial geometry, of course.


An application like this is really where that additive manufacturing design freedom can shine, as users can select various types of treatment to be 3D printed on the six areas of their masks. This includes the forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, nasolabial folds, and the chin. Without the need to set up a production line, each mask can be completely and utterly personalized, and since the mask preparation stage is largely digitized, delivery times can be kept to minimum.


Advanced drug delivery implants


In the field of drug delivery implants, global engineering firm Renishaw has been making major strides with its patented intraparenchymal drug delivery device. The company recently completed a joint Phase 1-2 clinical study around the brain implant, which is capable of treating Parkinson’s disease - a neurodegenerative disorder for which there is currently no long-term treatment.


The device comprises up to four catheters which are implanted into relevant areas in the patient’s brain. 3D printed titanium transcutaneous ports are then implanted behind the patient’s ear, allowing medical professionals to access the catheters. Drug-filled infusion lines are then connected using MRI-compatible components and retractable needles are extended through a septum to allow drugs to be delivered through the infusion lines to the catheters directly into the brain.


Thus far, the researchers involved in the study have been investigating cerebral dopamine neurotrophic factor (CDNF) as the treatment agent, with some very promising results. The device and its accompanying drug have both shown significant efficacy and safety to date, and have been trialled in 17 patients over the course of 6 months. While the implant is likely still a few years off widespread use and commercialization, it acts as a fantastic proof-of-concept for 3D printing’s ability to produce highly advanced long-term drug delivery devices.


Looking at the state-of-the-art, it’s clear that 3D printing certainly has its uses in the medical field. Although many of the applications covered are in their infancy stages, they have developed exponentially over the past decade, and are maturing at ever-faster rates. Not only are new products entering the fray but with them, novel business models. Only time will tell where additive manufacturing technology will take the field of drug delivery devices, but it's certain to be a life-saving direction.


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