A collaborative team of researchers from University College London, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (USC), and FabRx, an expert in pharma-tech, tackled the issue of fabricating personalized medication not just by 3D printing it, but by 3D printing it using the light from a smartphone screen. The combination of smartphones and healthcare is more common than you may realize, and as the team recounts in its proof-of-concept study—which is said to be the first one published about 3D printing pharmaceuticals with a smartphone—their method brings personalized medicine directly to the point-of-care. This could be especially helpful for patients living in remote areas, far away from major hospitals, or who can’t leave their homes.
According to the paper’s abstract, “Most 3D printers are relatively large, require trained operators and must be located in a pharmaceutical setting to manufacture dosage forms. In order to realise fully the potential of point-of-care manufacturing of medicines, portable printers that are easy to operate are required. Here, we report the development of a 3D printer that operates using a mobile smartphone. The printer, operating on stereolithographic principles, uses the light from the smartphone’s screen to photopolymerise liquid resins and create solid structures.”
A new smartphone-based 3D printer was used in this research: a version of the M3DIMAKER 3D printer developed with UCL spinout FabRx, which successfully completed the world’s first human clinical study using personalized Printlets (3D printed pills).
“This novel system would help people who need precise dosages that differ from how a medication is typically sold, as well as people whose required dosage may change regularly,” explained lead author and UCL School of Pharmacy PhD researcher Xiaoyan Xu. “The tablet’s shape and size are also customisable, which enables flexibility in the rate at which the medication gets released into the bloodstream. It may even be possible to custom-print polypills containing multiple drugs, to reduce pill burdens for elderly patients.”
Basically, a patient would receive a personalized resin formulation that makes the basis of the Printlet, which then constitutes the necessary drug, dissolved in a photoreactive chemical solution. The doctor would prescribe the dosage, and the patient would pour the solution into the resin tank of their 3D printer (assuming, of course, that they have one, but more on that later). After customizing the pill’s shape using a custom mobile app, the patient would insert the smartphone into the printer, and the light from its screen would react with the solution to print a solid medication into the correct shape, size, and dosage.
“The use of such innovative technologies and ground-breaking approaches in healthcare and pharmacy will open the door to new opportunities and treatments that are difficult to foresee right now,” stated FabRx co-founder and co-senior author Dr. Alvaro Goyanes, UCL School of Pharmacy and Health Research Institute of USC.
The team tested its new system with two common smartphones, and calibrated the printer to work with the screens at their highest level of brightness. The researchers were successful in printing pills, as they wrote, “to a high resolution and with excellent dimensional precision using different photosensitive resins.” The Printlets contained the common blood thinner warfarin and were printed with different sizes, dosages, and shapes, including diamonds, triangles, squares, and lattices, which help achieve a faster release of the drug.
To test how well the drug could be absorbed into the bloodstream, the researchers dissolved a warfarin-based Printlet into a model that mimics conditions inside the digestive tract, and discovered that it was gradually released over 24 hours. The shape and size of the Printlet dictated the rate at which the warfarin was released, which shows that even further customization is possible with 3D printed pills. If this proof-of-concept has successful future trials, and the technology receives the necessary regulatory approval, patients could perhaps have a medical 3D printer at home one day, which they could use to print their medicine.
“3D-printed medications could be an important part of the move towards more personalized medicines, as we hope that eventually, people will be able to print their own medications at home,” said UCL School of Pharmacy research fellow and study co-author Dr. Atheer Awad.
However, don’t get too excited, as this isn’t likely to be a possibility for quite some time. In addition to the fact that insurance doesn’t yet cover at-home medical 3D printers, this method, and any resins used with it, still has to go through safety checks before human trials can even be discussed.
“We are continuing to refine our technology and improve the safety of the Printlets, as well as to build in safeguards such as enabling doctors to remotely monitor a patient’s medical printer to check adherence to a treatment plan,” said FabRx co-founder and co-senior author Professor Abdul Basit of the UCL School of Pharmacy. “While plenty of challenges remain to bring our vision to life, we hope that 3D-printed medications could facilitate point-of-care medicine, with printers in hospital emergency wards or in GP surgeries, perhaps even in resource-limited areas, and hopefully in people’s homes as well.”
The researchers did say that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is currently reviewing whether a regulatory framework for 3D printed medication should make it possible for patients to fabricate pills at home.
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