Are we ready for downloadable medicine?

Thursday 6th August 2015

News this week that the US Food and Drug Administration has approved the world’s first 3D-printed pill has brought with it the kind of excitement and prophesising that followed the announcement of the creation of Dolly the sheep and the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

And rightfully so I guess – a 3D printed pill that is simple to produce, can be custom-ordered based on specific patient need and is easy to swallow is not only ground-breaking but possibly challenges the future of big pharma production. Could such technology become mainstream to the point where a patient would download their drug recipe and print off the tablets at home? Could we be about to say goodbye to the high street chemist? Will we all be self-medicating by the end of the decade?

This news certainly points to a future of even more personalised medicine than current health research programmes describe. Hospitals and pharmacies would be able to programme their drug production software to adjust doses of a drug to suit the individual. There is also the possibility of creating 3D pills of different shapes that release drug doses at different rates – something that is both expensive and difficult to produce using standard techniques. Did you know that a spherical tablet will release its drug faster than a pyramid-shaped one? It’s all about surface area-to-volume-ratio apparently. Slower releasing 3D printed pills could perhaps be more suitable for managing (at home) long-term pain or administering cancer drugs than current invasive treatments.


Whatever the application, the announcement should please the Department of Health (DoH.) The DoH recently launched its Personalised Health and Care 2020 plan which outlines how data and technology will help transform health and care services over the next five years.

Section 3 of the plan outlines a more digitised approach to understanding and managing medicines that aims to better inform and empower patients about their medical care. They will be able to choose how and where they get their prescriptions, without the need for paper and be able to check information about their medicines, through simple barcodes. Connecting data to other digital applications such as a phone app will help remind people when to take their medicines.

And it got me thinking – well wanting to ask you really – by introducing such systems, could we be beginning a kind of digital education process for patients, the end point of which is everyone managing their own NHS home healthcare kit, complete with 3D printer, standard pill compounds and drug ordering software? It might be amazing and transform healthcare globally. Or, much like the technology used to clone a sheep, home pharma could be open to exploitation and misuse. Are we ready for downloadable medicine? Are we really ready for the responsibility of fundamentally ‘looking after ourselves?’

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