Additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – is the process of making objects by the successive deposition of material according to a digital model. The technique is being considered for a wide range of applications – from gun manufacturing to pizza production in space.
Pharmaceutical industry researchers have also expressed interest in using it to make drugs, devices and implants. However, currently the only commercially available 3D prinited drug is Aprecia Pharmaceuticals’ seizure medication Spritam (levetiracetam).
3D printing offers a number of advantages for drug production according to Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who told us the approach could simplify the manufacturing process.
“The idea is to use configurable robotics to control the assembly of the reactionware and then coordinate the chemical reactions – in this way we can use very simple robotic formats for chemical synthesis.”
One of the common concerns about using 3D printing to make drugs – or anything else for that matter – is that the processes and the technology required are more expansive that established methods.
While the initial investment costs may be higher, there are opportunities to save money in the longer term according to Cronin.
“The cost of the hardware potentially is a lot less” he said, adding that the modular nature of newer 3D printing technologies mean that production lines are more configurable and responsive than traditional manufacturing technologies.
Cronin added that: “The cost reduction will come in flexibility and re-use of modules.”
Make it so-so number one
Reliability is also an issue as earlier 3D printing systems sometimes struggled to consistently produce relatively straightforward forms.
3D printing advocates and technology developers are aware of such concerns and are focused on solving them according to Cronin who said: “There are system level challenges but many of the key aspects are well defined. The key is to show robustness and flexibility.”
He also suggested that to make best use of the manufacturing flexibility offered by 3D printing, the pharmaceutical industry needs to re-evaluate how it meets commercial demand and manages inventory.
“Industrial scale [3D printing] is achieved by numbering up, not scaling up. This approach requires a fundamental re-think of the manufacturing process."
Professor Cronin will be speaking about 3D printing and its potential for pharmaceutical production at Interphex in New York, US today.