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.
It should also bring new drugs to market faster, so patients can benefit more quickly from medical advances.
The research, led by Dr Nik Kapur from the University's Faculty of Engineering, is set to revolutionise a process which has remained unchanged for over a thousand years.
GSK has developed a way of printing active pharmaceutical ingredients onto tablets - but the process can only currently be applied to just 0.5 per cent of all medicines used in tablet form. The researchers hope the new project will see this increase this to 40 per cent.
"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 ink-jet 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. With some of the current quality assurance procedures rendered unnecessary, new drugs would reach patients much faster.
The first documented manufacture of pills goes back to Egyptian times, when active medicinal ingredients were rolled in bread or clay, but the earliest reference to a tablet - a compressed pill - is found in tenth century Arabic medical literature. The process had little changed when the first patent for tablets was applied for in 1843. First produced in small doses by pharmacists, mass production still uses the same process, but with much advanced technology and quality assurance.
Because most drugs only need very small doses, the pill or tablet acts as a carrier to make the medicine big enough to pick up and swallow. The active ingredient is usually just one thousandth of a pill, so has to be mixed with other ingredients to bulk it out to pill size. This is then split into the amount needed for each pill and compressed to create a tablet.
One of the major challenges is ensuring that each tablet contains the correct dose. This is currently done by statistically checking samples from each batch of pills post-production, but a printed system would enable quality control of each pill as it is produced. 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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Notes to editors:
- For a history of tablet making, see Tablet Manufacture by Norman Anthony Armstrong of the Welsh School of Pharmacy, Cardiff University, published in the Encyclopaedia of Pharmaceutical Technology, on 02 October 2006. DOI: 10.1081/E-EPT-100001726
- Dr Nik Kapur is Deputy Director of the Institute of Engineering Thermofluids, Surfaces and Interfaces (iETSI) and a senior lecturer in the School of Mechanical Engineering. Also working on the project from the University of Leeds are: Professor Jim Guthrie, Colour Science, School of Chemistry
Dr Mark Wilson, RCUK Academic Research Fellow, School of Mechanical Engineering
Dr Oliver Harlen, Reader in Applied Mathematics, School of Mathematics Leading the work at the Durham University is Professor Colin Bain from the Department of Chemistry.
- The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Leeds is ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of its research (2008 Research Assessment Exercise); an impressive 75% of the Faculty's research activity rated as internationally excellent or world leading. With 700 academic and research staff and 3,000 students the Faculty is a major player in the field with a track record of experience across the full spectrum of the engineering and computing disciplines. The Faculty of Engineering is home to five schools: civil engineering; computing; electronic and electrical engineering; mechanical engineering; process, environmental and materials engineering. Two thirds of students are undergraduates with the remaining third split evenly between taught masters and research degrees. The Faculty attracts staff and students from all around the world; one third of students are from outside the UK and representing over 90 different nationalities. http://www.engineering.leeds.ac.uk/
- The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/
- Durham University (www.durham.ac.uk) is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience: http://www.1994group.ac.uk/