3D-printed medication. (Image: University of Nottingham)

Researchers from the University of Nottingham’s Center for Additive Manufacturing have led work that has fabricated personalized medicine using Multi-Material InkJet 3D Printing (MM-IJ3DP). The research has been published in Materials Today Advances.

The team has developed a cutting-edge method that enables the fabrication of customized pharmaceutical tablets with tailored drug release profiles, ensuring more precise and effective treatment options for patients.

Using MM-IJ3DP, tablets can be printed that release drugs at a controlled rate, determined by the tablet's design. This is made possible by a novel ink formulation based on molecules that are sensitive to ultraviolet light. When printed, these molecules form a water-soluble structure.

The drug release rate is controlled by the unique interior structure of the tablet, allowing for timing the dosage release. This method can print multiple drugs in a single tablet, allowing for complex medication regimens to be simplified into a single dose.

“This is an exciting step forward in the development of personalized medication. This breakthrough not only highlights the potential of 3D printing in revolutionizing drug delivery but also opens up new avenues for the development of next-generation personalized medicines,” said Dr. Yinfeng He, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Engineering’s Center for Additive Manufacturing.

“While promising, the technology faces challenges, including the need for more formulations that support a wider range of materials. The ongoing research aims to refine these aspects, enhancing the feasibility of MM-IJ3DP for widespread application,” Professor Ricky Wildman added.

This technology will be particularly beneficial in creating medication that needs to release drugs at specific times, making it ideal for treating diseases, where timing and dosage accuracy are crucial. The ability to print 56 pills in a single batch demonstrates the scalability of this technology, providing a strong potential for the production of personalized medicines.

“The future of prescribed medication lies in a personalized approach, and we know that up 50 percent of people in the U.K. alone don’t take their medicines correctly and this has an impact on poorer health outcomes with conditions not being controlled or properly treated. A single pill approach would simplify taking multiple medications at different times and this research is an exciting step towards that,” said Professor Felicity Rose.

Here is an exclusive Tech Briefs interview — edited for length and clarity — with He.

Tech Briefs: What was the biggest technical challenge you faced while developing this 3D-printing technique?

He: The most significant technical challenge I encountered was the limited choice of compatible formulations, meaning that we had to design and develop our own formulations. Unfortunately, bad formulation choices can easily damage the printhead, a critical component, and replacements are expensive. This has made us extremely cautious when creating and testing new formulations.

Tech Briefs: What was the catalyst for your work? How did this project come about?

He: This work emerged from discussions with pharmaceutical industry partners, where we recognized the potential of printing and delivering multiple drugs in a single tablet or tailoring a pill to precisely match a patient's needs as significant advancements. At that time, we were working with the MM-IJ3DP technique and realized it would be an excellent method for achieving these goals.

Tech Briefs: Can you explain in simple terms how it works?

He: The process is very similar to building with Lego bricks or playing ‘Minecraft,’ where different ‘bricks’ are combined in certain order to construct a complex structure. In our case, pharmacists can select the ‘bricks’ they need to create a pill tailored to a patient. Our technique involves constructing these ‘bricks’ according to a blueprint and assembling them quickly and cost effectively.

Tech Briefs: Professor Ricky Wildman is quoted in the article as saying, “…The ongoing research aims to refine aspects, enhancing the feasibility of MM-IJ3DP for widespread application.” Do you have any updates about the ongoing research you can share?

He: As Professor Wildman highlighted, the diversity of formulations (‘bricks’) is our main challenge. In our latest work we are developing a toolkit, made up of screening tools and computer algorithms that will help manufacturers decide which formulation is suitable for what application. This has been funded by our research council EPSRC and we hope to deliver our toolkit in the next few years.

Tech Briefs: Do you have any set plans for further research? What are your next steps?

He: Our primary goal is to continue expanding the formulation database for our technology. Moreover, as we harness this powerful technology, we realize the need for more sophisticated design knowledge to fully leverage its potential.

Our next steps involve exploring how to design pills that maximize the capabilities of this technique. We are currently investigating the use of AI technology to understand the drug release profiles of different 3D-printed pills. This approach will offer us a new toolset to help us design pills that meet the desired drug release performance specified by pharmacists for patients.

Tech Briefs: Do you have any advice for engineers/researchers aiming to bring their ideas to fruition, broadly speaking?

He: My advice is to engage with people from diverse disciplines. Solutions that may seem unavailable in your field could be well developed another field. I really benefited from the interdisciplinary team at the Center for Additive Manufacturing as well as the supportive collaborative environment at the University of Nottingham. Whenever I face challenges, discussions with colleagues often spark new ideas and offer fresh perspectives.