New research into safer drugs puts pills through the printer

Technology is set to revolutionise a process that has been unchanged for more than a thousand years

A collaboration between the University of Leeds, Durham University and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is looking at ‘printing’ pills to order to create safer and faster-acting medicines and bring new drugs to market faster. The research, led by Dr Nik Kapur from the University’s Faculty of Engineering, is set to revolutionise a process that has remained unchanged for more than a thousand years.

GSK has developed a way of printing active pharmaceutical ingredients onto tablets – but the process can currently be applied to only 0.5% of all medicines used in tablet form. The researchers hope the new project will see this increase this to 40%.

‘Some active ingredients can be dissolved in a liquid, which then behaves like normal ink, so then the process is fairly straightforward,’ explains Dr Kapur. ‘However, when you’re working with active ingredients that don’t dissolve, the particles of the drug are suspended in the liquid, which creates very different properties and challenges for use within a printing system.

‘For some tablets, you may also need higher concentrations of active ingredients to create the right dose, and this will affect how the liquid behaves.’

A medicine droplet is 20 times larger than an ink droplet in a standard inkjet system, so the challenges facing the researchers include the numbers of drops that each tablet can hold, and how to increase the level of active ingredient in each drop. The research will also look at the properties and behaviour of the suspension, the shape and size of the printing nozzle and ways to pump the suspension through the printing equipment.

Drugs produced in this way would be faster acting, as with the active ingredient on the pill’s surface, the pill would no longer need to be broken down by the digestive system before the drug can enter the bloodstream. Ultimately it would also be possible to print several drugs onto one pill, reducing the number of tablets to be swallowed by patients on multiple medicines.

Printing active ingredients onto pre-formed tablets speeds up and improves quality control, as each tablet contains exactly the correct dose. The new system would therefore both speed up production and provide a greater quality assurance and consistency of dosage than are currently possible under even the highest pharmaceutical standards.

The research is jointly funded by GSK and the Technology Strategy Board and will run for two years. Working with Dr Kapur on the project are colleagues from Leeds’ Schools of Mechanical Engineering, Maths and Chemistry and from the Durham University’s Department of Chemistry.

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