3D-printed pills are a thing, and could make treatment easier

Aprecia Pharmaceuticals has been granted several patents to print drugs, using 3D printers to make pills. If that’s not unusual enough, the FDA has already approved the first printed drug, Spiritam, and it will be available shortly. Spiritam is an anti-seizure medication that can be used to treat some types of epilepsy.

3D printers using plastics and other compounds are already being used to in medicine to make some simple organs (or organ segments) like tracheas 3D printers have already fashioned some superficial body structures like ears and noses that can be used to replace those damaged by trauma. As research and technology advance, 3D printing may soon allow the production of whole organs. This would be an incredible advance in organ transplantation.

There are about 125,000 people in the U.S. on various transplant lists (heart, kidney, liver, etc.). Many die while waiting for a transplant to become available. For example, almost half of those waiting for a kidney transplant who are age 60 will die before a donated organ becomes available. When 3D printed organs become available, the number of available donors won’t be a limiting factor for transplants. Additionally, it’s possible that some on the transplant list will be able to get replacement organs made from their own cells, eliminating the risk of rejection.

But back to Aprecia and it’s printed drug. Why is this such an advancement?

The vehicle the drug is in makes it dissolve really quickly. That allows it to be absorbed faster than other oral medications. But that’s small potatoes compared with the much more important issue. The patient’s medication can be dosed individually for that patient. No more one-size-fits-all dosing.

Now medications come in a set number of strengths. So, when a doctor writes a prescription, they may only have one or two strengths to choose from. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. However, if the patient has a concomitant disease, like liver disease, and the prescribed drug is detoxified by the liver, the doctor may not want to use that particular drug because it may make the liver disease worse. If things go well, he may be able to find a different drug that may be detoxified by the kidney and be able to use that instead. But that isn’t always an option.

Sometimes, there is no alternative drug that won’t worsen the liver disease. That leaves the choice of treating the disease with the newly added drug and hoping that the patient’s liver doesn’t fail, or not adding the new drug and hoping that the patient can get through without it. Neither one may be a good choice.

But with printable medications, it would be easy to print a smaller dose of the new medication — one that might work to cure the new disease without worsening the underlying liver disease. Just program the printer to make a 100 mg drug instead of the 350 mg drug, which would normally be the only option. If the 100 mg dose doesn’t seem to be working, then have a 125 mg dose printed. Those lower doses may be enough to do the job without causing additional liver problems. We could titer the strength of the drug to do just what we need it to do, reducing the risk of harmful side effects.

Of course, printable individualized dosing is still in the future. Right now the FDA has only approved Spiritam to be made like this. And right now, Spiritam will only be available in four strengths. However, using the 3D printer techniques is opening the door to individualized dosing. More similar drugs could be on the way soon.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • 2karmanot

    exactly so

  • docsterx

    Two easy-to-read articles on the creation of human organs for transplant, some by using 3D printers, others by other methods.

    Fairly simple organs have already been grown and implanted: urinary bladders, urethras, vaginas, etc. Other organs, like a liver, have been grown but are still years away from implantation.

    http://www.techrepublic.com/article/new-3d-bioprinter-to-reproduce-human-organs/

    http://www.vox.com/2014/11/20/7252365/lab-grown-organs

  • hauksdottir

    Significantly more than the price of a quality knife and sharpening stone.

  • Indigo

    And readily available to the social class that rents them.

  • Indigo

    That could turn out to be a problem in the coming years. Medicare needs to adjust its expectations to individualized medicine as opposed to generic prescriptions. That will take some time, I fear.

  • Bill_Perdue

    They’re generous and courageous to a fault when it comes to treating people in the colonial world. “Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola – It’s the only country besides the U.S. to send substantial human resources to West Africa – As the first nation to dedicate hundreds of health care workers to West Africa, Cuba is an unlikely hero in the Ebola outbreak…. In spite of not being among the wealthiest countries, Cuba is one of the most committed when it comes to deploying doctors to crisis zones. It has offered more than 460 Cuban doctors and nurses to West Africa, and currently, 165 are working there under the direction of the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 50,000 health care workers from Cuba are working in 66 countries around the world.” http://time.com/3556670/ebola-cuba/

  • 2karmanot

    I’m hoping they can print out an improved collective brain for Republican legislators.

  • 2karmanot

    Same here. I went from 60 years of seemingly perfect health to a major systems breakdown after a deer tick bite. It took my body over a year to adjust to medications. They made me so ill, I couldn’t leave the house at times. Worse Medicare wouldn’t cover the cost of the more advanced medications.

  • 2karmanot

    Probably the price of a sumner Hamptons rental.

  • 2karmanot

    Especially Cuba, whose medical research and distribution is quite advanced.

  • percysowner

    I vaguely feel like I’m seeing the birth of the Star Trek replicator.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Things will get much better when the Cubans, South Africans and others begin to print high cost drugs and export them to other nations under the heel of colonialism, especially HIV drugs.

  • Demosthenes

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Arthur C. Clarke

  • nicho

    And the cost of the drug will be???

  • Indigo

    I’d heard that absorption is better with this style of pill but I hadn’t heard about tailoring the dosage to the exact degree suitable for the individual patient. That is awesome! I’m hyper-drug sensitive and often find that the recommended dosage is about twice what I need. I’m loving this development!

  • Why do I feel like I’m living in a science-fiction story lately? The whole idea of 3-D printing is kind of amazing, but taking it into, first, pharmaceuticals, and maybe on to tissue and organs is just mind-boggling.

    And I like having my mind boggled.

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