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  • 12.01.15

3-D Printers Can Now Make Pills That Deliver A Customized Dose Of Medicine

Welcome to the bespoke pharmacy of the future.

A couple of centuries ago, if you needed to take a pill, a pharmacist would have whipped you up a custom order roughly tailored to your own needs. Mass manufacturing of drugs changed that. But 3-D printing may make customized pills possible again.

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With custom pills, in theory, patients would get better treatment and potentially fewer side effects than with a one-size-fits-all drug.

“Patients are not all the same,” says Min Pu, a doctor and professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who worked with a research team to build a prototype for 3-D-printed, personalized pills. “The way we react to a drug is … dictated in part by our genetics as well as many other individual factors. Currently, pill dosages are dosed based on a ‘standard’ patient. That’s akin to a clothing store only selling suits of three different sizes and expecting a perfect fit in all customers.”

In the prototype, researchers can type in individual data from a particular patient, and the algorithm calculates the best dose for them. Then it sends data to a 3-D printer to print out the ideal pill. “Going back to the clothing store analogy…we now custom measure and tailor your suit,” Pu says.

It’s something that isn’t possible today with most drugs. “The biggest challenge currently is technology,” he says. “Pills are currently made by customized dies which are not easily adjustable. This keeps the cost down and also speeds up production. However, it also means these mass produced pills cannot be individualized for each unique patient.”

The researchers are developing their technology to make it affordable enough to use on a large scale, and tweaking their algorithm to better predict the perfect dose for an individual. But this might be how you get your medicine soon.

In fact, one drug already exists in 3-D printed form. A couple of months ago, the FDA approved its first 3D-printed pill, a drug that treats seizures. In this case, 3-D printing technology has a different purpose: It makes it possible to make a high dose of medicine that can melt in someone’s mouth with just a sip of water, so patients no longer have to choke down giant pills. Later, perhaps the same tech could be used to customize doses.

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“There are still many challenges still ahead, but I believe personalized medicine is where we are headed,” says Pu.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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