Leveraging 3D Printing In Pharma, For Cost Containment And Patient-Centricity

Today, although a number of new and state of the art drugs is regularly being developed, and brought to the market at a reasonably rapid pace, their access to the majority of the global population has still remained a huge challenge. One of the key access barriers continue to remain exorbitant prices of these drugs.   

Keeping commensurate pace with gradual improvement in the pinpointed diagnosis of various diseases with modern diagnostics, processes, devices and techniques, fueled by increasing health awareness within a sizeable section of the population, more patients are now aspiring for access to a better quality of life, and greater productivity at work. This is happening all over the world, though with varying degree and magnitude. 

Consequently, there has been a sharp increase in the demand for healthcare, which has caused a huge bottleneck in the overall healthcare delivery process, for various reasons. The huge gap between the availability of high-tech drugs/healthcare services, and their access to the general population, mostly due to affordability reasons, is going north at a rapid pace. 

Two-pronged cost containment pressure:

This unfettered ascending trend is creating primarily the following two types of cost containment pressure: 

  • Being driven purely by the economical reasons, the Governments and other payers have started taking stringent cost-containment measures, bringing huge pricing pressure, especially on the drugs and medical device manufacturers.
  • In countries, such as, India, where the ‘Out of Pocket’ expenditure on healthcare in general, and the medicines in particular, is hovering around 70 percent, the patients, several Governments have started announcing drug price control policy to protect the health interest of patients. 

However, currently, only some piecemeal measures are being initiated, including in India, where a holistic approach for all, such as, Universal Health Care (UHC) and several other similar options, are long overdue.

Three different remedial measures:

In my view, consideration of either of these three following approaches, or an innovative blend of these, would enable the Governments to address this pressing issue, remove the existing bottle neck, and thereby bridge the healthcare access gap, holistically:

A. Fast implementation of Universal Health Care (UHC).

B. Closer look at the entire Pharmaceutical Value Chain with a resolve to work out innovative, game-changing solutions to reduce cost of each of its critical components, significantly.

C. Effectively addressing the emerging need of Patient-Centricity.

A. Fast implementation of Universal Health Care (UHC):  

I have already discussed UHC in one of my articles titled, “Universal Health Coverage: The Only Alternative To Drug Price Control in India?”, published in this Blog on November 9, 2015.

B. Cost containment with 3D printing:

A report of IMS Health, published on November 18, 2015, forecasts the increase of  total global spend for pharmaceuticals by US$ 349 billion on a constant-dollar basis, compared with US$182 billion during the past five years. It also indicated, more than half of the world’s population will live in countries where the use of medicine will exceed one dose per person per day by 2020, up from 31 percent in 2005, as the “medicine use gap” between the developed and the emerging markets narrows. 

This steep ascending trend would eventually affect the pharma ‘Value Chain’ in a significant way, throwing open several path-breaking high-technology based options, with impressive favorable impact on the general costs of medicines. 3D-printing technology is expected to play a significant role in this initiative.

Before proceeding further, let me zero-in on a few critical components, as follows, of the pharma ‘Value Chain’, as I see visualize these: 

  • Drug innovation (R&D)
  • Manufacturing
  • Marketing
  • Supply Chain

According to my understanding, at least in 3 of the above 4 ‘Value Chain’ components, there is an immense potential of leveraging 3D printing technology effectively, and in a big way.

In my article of January 11, 2016, published in this Blog, titled “3D Printing: An Emerging Game Changer in Pharma  Business”, I have already discussed the game changing impact of 3D Printing technology on the drug discovery process, drug manufacturing strategy, and supply Chain effectiveness in the pharma business. 

Hence, I prefer not to dwell on those areas, yet again, here. Instead, I shall briefly deliberate on the application of 3D Printing technology to effectively address the emerging need of ‘Patient-Centricity’ with an interesting and a very recent example. 

C. Improving ‘Patient-Centricity’ with 3D printing: 

At this stage, there is a need to understand what exactly is the ‘’Patient-Centricity’. It seems to be a popular buzzword now with the health care related companies, primarily to give an impression that they are really focusing on ‘Patient-Centricity’.

However, there does not seem to exist any universally accepted definition of this terminology, just yet. Nevertheless, one appropriate definition could well be: “A focused and transparent approach to providing maximum possible benefits to a patient from a drug, device, technology, or health care services.” 

I briefly focused on a part of this basic issue in my article titled, “‘Disease Oriented Treatment’ to ‘Patient Oriented Treatment’- An evolving trend’, published in this Blog on January 7, 2013.

As I said before, in this article, to explain ‘Patient-Centric’ approaches with 3D printing, I would quote from a very recent, and a path-breaking work in this area.

On May 25, 2016, ‘The Straits Times’ reported, the researchers at the National University of Singapore have found a way to use 3D printers to create low-cost tablets. With the help of this technology a tablet can be so personalized to respond to individual patient’s needs that the drug can be customized to take on different release profiles, such as, constant release, pulsed release, increasing or decreasing release, and any arbitrary interval as required by the patient. However, the most striking is, different drugs with different release profiles can also be combined in a single pill.

Once administered, the tablet dissolves layer by layer over a period of time, releasing the drug at a controlled rate. The duration can be altered by changing the chemical composition of the liquid.

It is worth noting here that the conventional tablets are only capable of a constant rate of release, requiring the patient to manually control the dosage and release rate, by taking doses according to a prescribed schedule, given by the doctor. In this scenario, if a patient requires different drugs with different dosages and intervals, it can become inconvenient to keep track and potentially dangerous, especially when the patient misses a dose, the report highlighted. 

The commercially available printer used in the project costs just S$2,000.

The Assistant Professor Soh Siow Ling, who leads the project, reportedly, expects that the low cost will allow it to be used in hospitals and neighborhood clinics. He further explained, “Every single person is different, based on many factors such as genetics, age, body mass and so on. Different people also have different activity levels and consumption habits, which affect their needs. It is, (therefore), not desirable to use the same drug to treat different illnesses which have similar apparent symptoms.”

The report indicated that in October, 2015, these findings were published in an issue of Advanced Materials, which is a peer-reviewed materials science journal.

A patent for the tablets was filed last year, and they are currently in talks with multinational corporations, and medical professionals to identify potential applications, the article highlighted. 

Changing role of doctors:

From the above developments, it appears that unleashing the full potential of 3D printing technology in the pharma industry, would also enable the medical profession to move further towards ‘Patient-Centricity’, in its true sense.

This technology would empower them offering to each patient, the right drug or drug combinations, with most suitable drug delivery system, and exactly the way individual patients would prefer, with a very high degree of precision.

Thus, from overall disease treatment perspective, especially with medicines, this approach offers a great potential to be significantly more effective, and convenient to individual patients, as compared to the conventional approaches. 

I reckon, over a period of time, professional competitiveness would drive the doctors further honing their effectiveness in the disease treatment process, and that too with a high degree of precision. In that situation, many doctors may decide to setup on-demand 3D drug-printing facilities even at their clinics.

The gradual embodiment of this brilliant technology by the doctors, is expected to throw open new vistas of opportunity, also to personalize the shapes, colors and flavors of any medicine, according to individual patient’s choice. This, in turn, would improve patient compliance, ensure a predictable relief from the disease, and demonstrate ‘Patient-Centricity’ of a high order by the medical profession, in general. 


For the first time ever, with Aprecia Pharmaceuticals in the United States getting approval of the US-FDA on August 3, 2015 for the market launch of a 3D printed prescription drug for oral use by the epilepsy patients, dawns a new paradigm in the global pharma business horizon.

Effective application of this ‘disruptive innovation’ could well be a game changer not just in the ‘value chain’ of conventional pharma business models, across the world, but also for taking a giant leap towards ‘Patient-Centricity’. The doctors are also expected to be very much an integral part of this process. 

Besides all the above benefits, 3D printing can also encourage low-volume production, whenever required, and a wide variety of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, to meet any immediate demand, mostly for use in research and developmental work. 

Thus, noting the ongoing significant progress in this area, I reckon, leveraging 3D printing technology in pharma, not just to address the cost containment pressure, effectively, but also to ensure a tangible and visible move towards ‘Patient-Centricity’, in true sense. All-round success in the innovative application of this cutting-edge technology in the global pharma industry, would eventually separate men from boys in pursuit of business excellence. 

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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