Words by Isabel O’Brien
If we visualise 3D printing as a Rubik’s cube, each block representing a different application, we can see the infinite number of possibilities presented by this technology. Whilst its uses are expansive, the pharmaceutical industry cannot always innovate for innovation’s sake; rather, it must invest in the applications that deliver the best outcomes for the highest number of patients.
So, what is the industry’s unique solution? The initial hook of 3D printing was centred around personalising medications for individual patients: “3D printing can combine several medicines into a single ‘polypill’ for patients with chronic illnesses who are maintained by complicated medication regimens,” says Dr Alvaro Goyanes Goyanes, Co-Founder, Director of Development, FabRx. Whilst beneficial on an individual level, the necessity of this application has been questioned, with experts divided on whether this level of personalisation should be prioritised in already overstretched healthcare systems.
As a result, the preferred use of 3D printing has shifted from personalisation to streamlining, with pharma examining combinations that could revolutionise R&D:“During the drug development pipeline, small batches of medicines are required for pre-clinical and clinical studies. Flexible 3D printing can speed up the process by amending the dose and design according to the research requirements,” says Goyanes Goyanes. “In addition to this, adjustments to the excipients or salt forms can be made without prolonging the pre-medical assessment timeline and at a lower cost.”
Given that drug development is the most inefficient and high-cost section of the pharmaceutical lifecycle, there would be a vast knock-on benefit for both drug producers and patients if experimentation was faster and more economical.
Another section of R&D cycle that could benefit from 3D printing is clinical trials: the technology could be used to manufacture replica organs to be used as test subjects. This is a new and largely unexplored application, but this July, a potentially game-changing trial was launched by Bayer and Tel Aviv University. The project tests the safety and tolerability of selected drugs on induced pluripotent stem cell-derived 3D printed heart tissue: “Up to now, the predictions on future prospects made by preclinical research have been primarily based on animal experiments. The fact that its results cannot be transferred one-to-one to humans has long been known to be a shortcoming,” explains a Bayer spokesperson for the project. “It also allows for the fabrication of bio-structures with a high degree of complexity, with detailed tissue architecture and heterogeneous cellular composition.”
Flexible 3D printing can speed up the process by amending the dose and design according to the research requirements
Not only desirable from a scientific perspective, given that 3D printed organs can replicate the human response better than animal models, this is a step towards reducing reliance on a controversial testing practice: “In addition, there is the growing pressure – from society, but increasingly also from regulatory authorities – to dispense with animal testing altogether.”
If we’re looking at how 3D printing can benefit the highest proportion of patients, it is key to direct our gaze to R&D, of which every drug, for every disease, must pass through; common or rare, geriatric or paediatric – this is the part of the supply chain that does not discriminate. If we can relieve stress points here, we will have solved pharma’s Rubik’s cube puzzle: delivering an application that delivers the best outcomes for all.