The pharmaceutical industry is showing strong interest in the advantages of 3D printing of medicine. Merck, a leading science and technology company, teamed up with TNO in a project to unlock the potential of this technology for its research and development process, with more than promising findings and learnings.

From bespoke treatment and medication to the acceleration of pre-clinical trials, and leaner production methods: 3D printing is enabling tomorrow’s medicine. With over 25 years of know-how in this field, TNO is the leading knowledge institute for applying 3D technology in food and pharma.

Simon Geissler, Director Drug Delivery and Innovation in the Healthcare business sector of Merck, heads a group of scientists focusing on new manufacturing technologies and innovations for product development. Merck is exploring different technology platforms in the field of pharmaceutical 3D printing in public and private partnerships. TNO was the partner of choice in a collaboration evaluating binder jetting-based powder bed printing.

“We are constantly on the outlook for new technologies and dosage forms that provide benefits for our patients, and 3D printing is certainly a very promising technology. To further investigate opportunities we decided to look for a partner with a solid track record in innovation and 3D printing. Furthermore, TNO has without a doubt a strong reputation of translating new technology into feasible applications, with convincing 3D printing applications for food and plastics. On top of that we were also looking for a hands-on prototyping partner, to get access to customizable R&D machines that would fit our needs. TNO ticked all the boxes for binder jetting technology.”

‘We must learn how to benefit from the massive innovation boost in additive manufacturing’

‘Same materials, new advantages’

3D printed tablet unrelated to the project

In the pharmaceutical industry 3D printing enables quick and flexible pre-clinical formulation development and early phase clinical trials. “We were looking for a powder-based technology that we could use for pharmaceutical raw materials”, Geissler explains.

“In the “classic” development of solid oral dosage forms we are mostly working with powders – just like in powder-based 3D printing, it’s just a different material. While the dosage build-up and the use of a liquid binder is different from the current pressing procedure to make pills, the raw material is the same, so you can still use what you already have and know as a pharmaceutical scientist. And then there are of course all the advantages of the 3D printing process. Meaning: flexibility of dose, shape, taste, while greatly reducing the manufacturing complexity.”

‘Can-do attitude’

To get the approval to start their 3D printing research, the tangible product offered by TNO helped to convince internal stakeholders. “This was really important for us, to have a partner with significant hands-on experience and proven technology”, Geissler stresses.

“TNO gave us direct access to hardware and knowhow from their own experiments. This co-engineering really helped us to broaden our knowledge base. TNO was very open for new ideas and we experienced a high level of knowledge and interest in our field. The communication in our partnership was always very open and transparent. But the thing I appreciated the most, was their can-do attitude; they were really on board with us to discover new applications.”

‘We need a rethink’

Next to the research and development advantages of 3D printing, Geissler also acknowledges its potential for the manufacturing of drugs.

“Without a doubt 3D printing technology offers great opportunities for the production of innovative pharmaceutical dosage forms. At the same time, I can see this technology contribute to a whole new decentralised supply chain for our industry. My mind-set on this topic was also influenced by the current Covid-19 pandemic, when medicine shortages occurred in certain regions due to downtime in distribution. Additive manufacturing could contribute to a more decentralised and flexible supply chain.”

“I belief this crisis helps the industry to rethink how we would like to distribute drugs to our patients in the near future. At the same time we cannot ignore the demand for more personalised medicine, more niche applications of different drugs, where 3D printing is indispensable. This is an essential change in mind-set. The pharmaceutical industry must learn how to benefit from the massive innovation boost in additive manufacturing.”

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About Merck

Merck, a leading science and technology company, operates across healthcare, life science and performance materials. Around 57,000 employees work to make a positive difference to millions of people’s lives every day by creating more joyful and sustainable ways to live. From advancing gene editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices – the company is everywhere. In 2019, Merck generated sales of € 16.2 billion in 66 countries.

Scientific exploration and responsible entrepreneurship have been key to Merck’s technological and scientific advances. This is how Merck has thrived since its founding in 1668. The founding family remains the majority owner of the publicly listed company. Merck holds the global rights to the Merck name and brand. The only exceptions are the United States and Canada, where the business sectors of Merck operate as EMD Serono in healthcare, MilliporeSigma in life science, and EMD Performance Materials.

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