3D Printing: An Emerging Game Changer in Pharma Business

On August 3, 2015, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals in the United States took a game changing step towards a new paradigm of the global pharma business. The Company  announced that for the first time ever, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) approved a ‘Three-Dimensional (3D)’ – printed prescription drug for the oral use of epilepsy patients. Although, 3DP has already been used to manufacture medical devices and prosthetics, in the pharma world, this disruptive innovation was never practiced on the ground, till that magic moment came.

The drug is Spritam® (levetiracetam) used as a prescription adjunctive therapy in the treatment of partial onset seizures, myoclonic seizures and primary generalized tonic-clonic seizures in adults and children with epilepsy.

According to this announcement, Spritam® utilizes Aprecia’s proprietary ZipDose® Technology platform, that uses 3D Printing (3DP) to produce a porous formulation that rapidly disintegrates with a sip of liquid.

The 3DP technology:

3DP technology is broadly defined as a process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material.

The originator of this game changing development is the renowned academic institution – ‘The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’in the United States. 

Later on, the MIT licensed out the patented 3DP technology for its use in many different other fields. Among pharma companies Aprecia Pharmaceuticals obtained the exclusive rights to 3D-printing technology for pharmaceutical purposes in 2007.

A high potential game changer:

In pharma, 3DP could possibly emerge as a game changing and disruptive innovation, sooner than later. It could radically change the traditional and well-established strategic and operational models of pharma business, especially the drug discovery process, manufacturing strategy and even the disease treatment process, paving a faster pathway for the much awaited ‘Personalized Medicines’, in a large scale. 

Lee Cronin, a Professor of Chemistry, Nanoscience and Chemical Complexity at the Glasgow University, says that the 3DP technology could potentially be used to print medicines of many types – cheaply and wherever it is needed. As Professor Cronin says: “What Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.”

3D Printers would also throw open an opportunity of getting any drug tailor made for the individual patient’s needs, such as, exact dosage requirements, size, shape, color and flavor of the pill and also in the most appropriate delivery systems, just as what Aprecia Pharmaceuticals did with Spritam® by using this technology. 

In this article, I shall highlight the game changing impact of 3DP only in the following three areas of pharma business: 

  • The drug discovery process
  • Drug manufacturing strategy
  • Supply Chain effectiveness
A. Impact on drug discovery process:

A December 29, 2015 article titled, “Click chemistry, 3D-printing, and omics: the future of drug development”, published in ‘Oncotarget, Advance Publications 2015’ deliberates on the potential of 3DP in the drug discovery process.

The paper states, Genomics has unambiguously revealed that different types of cancers are just not highly complex, they also differ from patient to patient. Thus, conventional treatment approaches for such diseases fit poorly with genomic reality. It is also very likely that similar type of complexity will eventually be identified in many other life-threatening ailments.

Currently, a large number of patients are taking medications that may not help them, on the contrary could harm some of them. The top ten best-selling drugs in the United States are only effective in between 4 percent and 25 percent of the individuals for whom they are prescribed, the paper observes.

However, developing new drugs and tailoring such therapy to each patient’s complicated problem has still remained a major challenge.

One possible solution to this challenge could be to match patients to existing compounds with the help of an equally complicated modelling technique. Nonetheless, optimization of a complex therapy will eventually require designing compounds for patients using computer modeling and just-in-time production. 3DP shows a very high potential to effectively address this complex issue.

This is primarily because, 3DP is potentially transformative by virtue of its ability to rapidly generate almost limitless numbers of objects that previously required manufacturing facilities. 

It is also now becoming clearer that with 3DP, scientists will be able to print even the biologic materials, such as, tissues, and eventually organs. Thus, in the near future, it is plausible that high-throughput computing may be deployed to design customized drugs, which will reshape medicine, the article highlights.

In his short ‘Ted Talk Video Clip’ (please click on this link), Professor Lee Cronin explains his working on a 3D printer that, instead of objects, is able to print molecules for a new drug. It could throw open an exciting potential of a long-term application of 3DP for printing, our own customized new medicine by using chemical inks.

In a nutshell,  Professor Lee Cronin elucidates in his ‘Ted Talk’, how could the immense potential of 3D printers be leveraged to catalyze the chemical reactions in order to print real drugs, as and when required, according to the requirements of individual patients.

B. Impact on drug manufacturing strategy:

Not just in drug discovery, 3DP would equally be a game changer in pharma manufacturing, the way it is operated today, including the state of the art production facilities.

This could very much happen in tandem with the 3DP drug discovery research, moving towards personalized medicine, and simultaneously making the same 3DP an integral part of the new drug production line.

Moreover, besides the opportunity of getting any drug tailor made for individual patient needs, such as, exact dosage requirements, size, shape, color and flavor of the tablet and also the delivery system, 3DP technology can be most productively used to manufacture high priced low volume and patient-specific orphan drugs for the treatment of critical illnesses.

Even for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), the power and potential of 3DP technology can be well leveraged. On March 12, 2015 the ‘Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)’ of the United States announced that HHMI scientists have designed a revolutionary “3D printer” for small molecules that could open the power of customized chemistry to many. 

It further stated, small molecules hold tremendous potential in medicine and technology, but they are difficult to synthesize without proper expertise. The automated “3D printer” designed for small molecules is a way to get around this bottleneck. The new technology has the potential to unlock access to customized molecules in a way that will drive science forward, on many levels. Moreover, the potential for cost-savings with 3DP is huge, improving the drug profitability significantly.

C. Impact on 'supply chain' effectiveness: 

Currently, the traditional pharma ‘Supply Chain models’ are primarily based on the following:

  • Efficiency largely with high volume operation
  • Need to drive the cost as low as possible
  • Relatively higher-number of workers
  • The inventory cost
  • The real estate cost, owned directly or indirectly, for the entire ‘Supply Chain’ cycle

3DP technology would enable manufacturers shifting the ‘just in time production and distribution’ processes very close to consumers. Such well spread out and ‘just in time’ drug manufacturing activities catering to varying requirements, from very small to very high, would help reduce the cost of logistics, substantially.

This disruptive innovation will enable even the hospitals to print the required drugs at their own locations with, authorized 3DP file downloads, eliminating the need to keep huge inventory and also protecting patients from counterfeit medicines in the ‘Supply Chain’.

Thus, the bottom-line is, the drug companies will be able to print drugs with 3DP technology on real time demand at a large number of selected locations. This will significantly bring down the finished product inventory, starting from companies’ warehouses and distributors to retail and hospital shelves, to almost zero, making pharma supply chain significantly lean and highly effective.

Additionally, it will enable the pharma companies to manufacture drugs also in all developing countries, resulting in improved access to medicine, at a much lesser cost.

Conclusion:

I believe, this technology has already reached a critical juncture, where it is no longer a matter of conjecture that 3DP would ‘soon’ become a game changer, especially for the drug discovery process, manufacturing strategy and supply chain effectiveness of the pharma business, across the world, including India. Getting a prime mover advantage is vital. 

However, the question still remains: how soon will this ‘soon’ be? 

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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