NIH Awards $3M for 3D Printed Pediatric Medicine

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Researchers at Texas A&M University have embarked on an innovative project to transform how medication is administered to pediatric patients. Funded by a grant of approximately $3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the project focuses on using 3D printing to create customized medication tablets.

The initiative is a collaborative effort involving experts from the College of Engineering, the College of Pharmacy, and the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. They aim to replace traditional manufacturing methods, which produce mass-produced tablets with standard dosages and sizes, with a more flexible system capable of meeting the individual needs of children.

Led by Mathew Kuttolamadom, co-principal investigator and associate professor at the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, the team plans to develop a manufacturing method that will adapt the dosage and size of medication according to the evolving needs of pediatric patients, ranging from infants to 17-year-olds.

This novel approach is crucial because traditional methods lack the required flexibility for pediatric and geriatric patients, whose weight and medication needs frequently change. Standardizing dosages becomes particularly problematic in fields like pediatric oncology, where individualized treatment is crucial.

Pediatric patients face many challenges when it comes to taking medicines. First, they’re still growing, so the amount of medication they need can change often. Plus, adult pills are usually too big for them to swallow. Taste is another big deal; many medicines don’t taste good, and liquid versions aren’t always an option. The situation gets more complicated when children need multiple medications for serious illnesses like oncology, overwhelming them and their families.

For years, global initiatives and publications have highlighted the importance that children require tailored, age-appropriate dosage forms of medications. In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the “Make Medicines Child Size” campaign to push for medicines appropriately tailored for children’s age and weight. Despite these efforts, the situation remains alarming. In the United States, about 7.5 million preventable medication errors occur in pediatric patients each year; between 14% and 31% of these errors result in severe harm or even death. Mistakes with medications happen more often in critical settings like ERs, intensive care units, and neonatology. In these areas, physicians are dealing with serious illnesses and using medicines where there’s a fine line between a helpful dose and a dangerous one. The potential for customized, 3D printed drugs to improve dosing and medication administration accuracy could be a game-changing solution to these challenges.

In this new project, 3D printing techniques will be used to tailor the medication’s size, dosage, and even the combination of multiple medicines within a single tablet, offering unprecedented customization. However, adapting 3D printing techniques to pharmaceuticals poses its own unique set of challenges. According to Kuttolamadom, the main problems his team needs to solve are figuring out how these new drug-making methods work and making sure the medicine stays good and effective while they’re making it.

Mathew Kuttolamadom, associate professor at Texas A&M. Image courtesy of Texas A&M.

However, with a history of research in 3D printing for pharmacological applications, Kuttolamadom is not new to this field. In 2019, he delved into understanding the variables affecting the quality of personalized dose and controlled drug release medicines called printlets manufactured through selective laser sintering (SLS). His 2020 review on the same technology highlighted its under-explored potential in pharmaceuticals, citing its solvent-free nature and minimal post-processing as advantages. Moreover, another 2020 publication discussed the growing interest in 3D printing for creating personalized medicines, particularly after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first 3D printed drug in 2015. As an associate professor at Texas A&M University and director of the Manufacturing-, Geo- & Bioinspired-Tribology Lab (MGBTL), Kuttolamadom has integrated 3D printing into his Mechanical Design courses and secured over $3.5 million in research funding.

While Kuttolamadom’s latest project aims to revolutionize pediatric medication by creating a flexible and adaptive manufacturing system, enhancing the efficacy and safety of medication administration in young patients, it isn’t the first one. Many other researchers have explored the potential of 3D printing to customize medications for children. For example, University College London’s School of Pharmacy is working on optimizing 3D printed tablets for better drug release and easier ingestion by kids. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy focuses on “polypills,” which combine multiple medications into a single, 3D printed tablet. As the field continues to evolve, 3D printing could one day become a building block for creating more personalized treatments for younger patients.

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