A new seizure-combating drug, produced using a 3D printer, has been approved for the market, driving the possibilities of the often-questionable method of production into exciting medical realms.

And it could even mark the first step towards a novel way of producing made-to-order medicines for individual patients.

Bottle of pills
Soon we may not even need the bottle (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Pharmaceutical giant Aprecia’s drug Spritam was this week approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and uses the company’s trademark ZipDose technology – basically, 3D printing. The way it builds the drug makes it more porous, meaning that it disintegrates more quickly on contact with water.

So far, the company boasts being the first to successfully use 3D printing in large-scale drug manufacture.

The aim of the process, say the experts, is to improve the patient’s “experience of taking medication” and is set to be available, at least in the US, early next year.

But how does it work?

Perfect packaging always makes things easier to swallow (Fiona Hanson/PA)
Perfect packaging always makes things easier to swallow (Fiona Hanson/PA)

ZipDose allows for a higher drug load – up to 1,000 mg – to be included in a single dose, so more of the drug can be taken with just a sip of water. In the case of Spritam, a common drug that treats partial onset seizures, myoclonic seizures and primary generalised tonic-clonic seizures in adults and children with epilepsy is combined with the technology to create handy individually packaged doses.

So what are the benefits?

A man taking medicine
Made-to-order medicines could help us keep on top of our medication (Julien Behal/PA)

It just makes taking medication easier, according to Marvin H Rorick III, MD, neurologist at Riverhills Neuroscience in Cincinnati, Ohio. He said: “In my experience, patients and caregivers often have difficulty following a treatment regimen, whether they are dealing with a swallowing disorder or the daily struggle of getting a child to take his or her medication.

“Having an option for patients to take their medication as prescribed is important to managing this disease.”

As many with epilepsy know, the condition can often be linked to difficulty in swallowing, which in itself makes the problem worse.

And what about the possibilities in the future?

Handful of pastille sweets
Don’t these look just a little more appetising? (desobte/Flickr)

Probably many more than us laypeople could possibly fathom. But at this stage, 3D printing seems to offer more hope in the field of medicine than it has done in experiments with printing food and furniture. While it has been used to develop replacement bones for transplant patients, this is the first time it has been successfully used to create oral drugs.

In terms of actual drugs, the ability to combine different substances could give scientists the opportunity to introduce taste and flavour into medication – which would be yet another improvement to the all-round medication experience.

A bio-printer.
3D printing could pave the way for customised medical drugs (Andrew Milligan/PA)

And who knows how far that could lead? Scientists have suggested that it could be the birth of a novel way to customise drugs, combining particular substances and dosage levels that would be most effective for the particular patient using them.

And the benefit isn’t just for the patient. Aprecia says that these compact pills can help give healthcare providers confidence that they are prescribing effectively concentrated and safely dosed medication that their patients will find easy to take and stick to. Who knows? It might even free up a little doctor/nurse time.