By adapting a technology used to build electronic components, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new way to manufacture medication. The technique could eventually allow hospitals, pharmacies and doctor's offices to print drugs on demand, mixing different medications into one easy-to-administer dose.

Printing and medicine aren't strange bedfellows. The FDA has already approved a technique for 3D-printable drugs, which are more easily absorbed by the body thanks to their porous structure. The last few years have also seen plenty of advances in 3D-printed implants and other materials to speed along medical research.

This latest technique was adapted from organic vapor-jet printing, a method of manufacturing electronics by depositing fine crystals of a material onto a substrate surface. To print their medication, the Michigan researchers heated a powdered form of the active pharmaceutical ingredient until it evaporated, where it then combines with a heated inert gas. That mixture is then funnelled through a nozzle and deposited onto a chilled surface, where it cools to form a thin crystalline film.

In their tests, the researchers showed that medication printed in this way was just as effective at killing lab-grown cancer cells as other medication, but there are a few advantages unique to this technique. According to the researchers, it allows the drug to dissolve more easily without adding other solvents or chemicals, which not only helps the patient absorb the medicine, but could help drugs pass the rigorous screening processes standing between them and mainstream adoption.

"Pharma companies have libraries of millions of compounds to evaluate, and one of the first tests is solubility," says Max Shtein, lead researcher on the study. "About half of new compounds fail this test and are ruled out. Organic vapor jet printing could make some of them more soluble, putting them back into the pipeline."

Improving solubility also means that drugs behave in the lab more like they would in the body, making drug research more accurate and speeding along development. In the long run, the technique could also allow medications to be mixed and matched, before being printed on-site in pharmacies and hospitals onto a delivery device like a dissolvable strip or microneedle patch.

"A doctor or pharmacist can choose any number of medications, which the machine would combine into a single dose," says Shtein. "The machine could be sitting in the back of the pharmacy or even in a clinic."

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications, and the team outlines the technique in the video below.

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