3D printing, a disruptive technology since 1984
3D printing is not as recent as many of us might think. Several 3D printing processes were created starting the late 1970s, but the most known technology is Charles Hull’s stereolithography, invented in 1984. The 3D printing process enables to deposit the desired material in successive layers to create a physical object based on a digital model.
This technology has been leveraged in numerous industries, including automotive, aviation and food, but health care has always been a key area of innovation. As early as 1993, German scientists published an article focused on the use of 3D printing for reconstructive head surgery2. In 2002, a miniature functional kidney was engineered. The technology has soared since then, and in 2008, the first patient was able to walk thanks to a prosthetic leg printed without any assembly.
As soon as the cost of technology decreases, 3D printing will be part of our daily life. Current initiatives and products such as MakerBot in Brooklyn, NY let us think that a commercially affordable future for 3D printing is not far down the road. In New Zealand, a man is currently printing his handmade Aston Martin DB4 from his garage, while a New York Times journalist demonstrated that it is possible to prepare a home-cooked meal – not only the pizza but also the utensils – with a 3D printer, given that you have the right computer modeling3.
A new world of opportunities for pharma
According to Lee Cronin, pharmaceutical companies of the future will not sell drugs, but chemical inks, blueprints and applications. He also envisions a world where patients could use their own stem cells to print personalized medicine at home, fitting their genetic profile. If his predictions are right, this could be one of the most profound business model transformations the pharmaceutical industry will ever experience. Companies would need to completely rethink their drug development and manufacturing model, as well as the way they approach customer relationships. Even though it is still early to develop a comprehensive business case, the upside in terms of cost effectiveness and quality outcomes could be tremendous.
Obviously, the idea of patients printing drugs at home raises many questions and concerns: technology, cost, substance abuse, safety… But other B2B applications of 3D printing could be implemented in the shorter term. One option is 3D printing at the pharmacy or hospital: the convenience factor for patients would be lower, but the benefits in terms of personalized medicine could be fully leveraged while addressing abuse and counterfeit concerns. Another option not involving the 3D printing of drugs, and yet very promising for manufacturers, is drug testing on 3D printed organs during pre-clinical and clinical trials.
“Body on a chip”, or how 3D printing could transform drug testing
Since 2011, an alliance of US government agencies has been heavily investing in what is called “human on a chip”, “body on a chip” or “organs on a chip”4. Their objective is to develop a miniaturized system of human organs that will be used to model the body's response to harmful agents and develop potential therapies. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NIH (National Institutes of Health) are collaborating for the first time to fund a project conducted by the MIT aiming at developing a technology platform that will mimic human physiological systems in the laboratory. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has just announced in September 2013 the funding of a USD 24 million project to develop miniature lab-engineered, organ-like hearts, lungs, livers and blood vessels with the help of Wake Forest Baptist's 3-D printer5; several renowned hospitals such as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have joined the initiative.
The benefits for pharma of such initiatives are very obvious in a context of patent expirations and pressure on costs; “body on a chip” could allow them to test drugs more effectively thanks to human stem cells, and at a lower cost. In October 2013, AstraZeneca announced a partnership with Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering to better predict safety of drugs in humans by leveraging the institute’s “body on a chip” technologies. This is the first time a pharmaceutical company is involved in this multi-year effort to rethink drug testing, and we expect many other “big pharma” players to launch similar collaborations in the near future.
What we believe
There is no doubt that 3D printing will strongly impact the pharmaceutical business model. The real questions are, how and when.
We believe that drug printing at home may not be available as soon as predicted by experts, due to the technical and ethical concerns mentioned above. However, 3D printing of organs for drug testing purposes is very likely to revolutionize pharmaceutical companies’ Research and Development process in the upcoming decade, as indicated by the heavy investment from government agencies and nascent interest from pharmaceutical companies. In medical devices, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has already started to think about how to approach approval of 3D printed products.
Beyond 3D printing, many other innovations such as personalized diagnostics and smart implants could revolutionize the industry. We encourage pharmaceutical companies to set up innovation incubators and remain constantly connected to the most innovative trends. Major business model transformations are just around the corner.
Special thanks to Nick Carrier and David Mun for their contributions in delivering this blog post.