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3D printing, the process of producing a three-dimensional object of almost any shape or size using a computerised industrial robot, has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. An estimated 2.3 million 3D printers will have been shipped out to customers by 2018. With this in mind, we’re beginning to see how these machines could make a significant impact on the Pharma industry.

3D hearts

The world’s first commercially available, scientifically accurate 3D model of a whole heart could soon be making its way to doctors and scientists around the world. French company Dassault Systemes recently announced that, with some additional development, their 3D printed model of a heart could revolutionise the way cardiologists match treatments to individual heart patients.

3D parts of a heart have previously been developed, but this venture looks set to be the first time an entire version of the organ will have been constructed using this method. Such models could be used in the planning of valve replacements, allowing doctors to carry out the procedure on a model first before the patient. As every patient’s heart is a different size and shape, the ability to carry out this replacement in 3D first would allow the practitioner to envisage much more accurately how a real heart might respond, improving the success rate of the procedure.

Dr David Roberts, chief of cardiology at the North Shore Medical Centre in Salem, Massachusetts, told Mashable: “To date, we have not had the ability to simulate how a patient would respond to a given cardiac intervention (pacemaker, lead, cardiac valve or stent) prior to the procedure and have it influence the choices we make. This [3D printed heart] could be a game changer.”

3D drugs

How we administer medicines also looks set to change via the means of 3D printing. Commonly, medicine tablets are usually circular or oblong in shape, a culmination of manufacturing methods and the nature of how the drug is best released.

By using 3D printers, scientists from University College London’s School of Pharmacy have begun research into what other shapes could be used for medicine tablets, studying which would release the drug at the desired rate. Shapes such as pyramids and donuts are usually difficult to produce using the traditional compaction manufacturing methods in medicine production, but can easily be created using a 3D printer.

In fact, the researchers, who used a combination of 3D printing and hot melt extrusion, discovered that the 3D printed pyramid tablet dissolved the fastest, while the cylinder dissolved the slowest.

“The future of medicine design and manufacturing is likely to move away from mass production of tablets/capsules of limited dose range towards extemporaneous fabrication of unit dosage forms of any dose, personalised to the patient. To face this challenge, the pharmaceutical industry needs to evaluate and embrace novel manufacturing technologies. One technology with such potential is 3D printing.

“Manufacture of such complex and intricate shapes by powder compaction would be extremely challenging and so the study immediately suggests that 3D printing offers a route of manufacture of dosage forms of novel geometries not previously possible,” claimed the researchers in a statement.

3D skin

In a bid to further distance themselves from animal testing, L’Oreal recently announced a partnership with 3D bio-printing firm Organovo, who look set to produce 3D printed skin on which the cosmetics company can test their beauty products. Scientists currently grow skin cultures for L’Oreal to use in testing, but this process is time consuming, pricey and produces limited results.

Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oreal’s technology incubator, told the Washington Post: “Some of the biggest potential advantages [of 3D printed skin] are the speed of production as well as the level of precision that 3D printing can achieve. L’Oreal’s focus right now is not to increase the quantity of skin we produce but instead to continue to build on the accuracy and consistent replication of the skin engineering process.”

While this latest venture is initially concerned with the testing of beauty products, there’s no doubt that 3D skin would be hugely viable in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly for the testing of creams and ointments. 3D printed tissues may provide an alternative to animal testing within the Pharma industry, a process which doesn’t always yield accurate results due to the differences in structure of animal tissue compared to human.

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