Patent filings research reveals the true potential of 3D printing technology in medical science, says Withers & Rogers

According to patent filing research conducted by intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers, the 3D printing of medical devices and prosthetics is set to become common practice over the next 10 years. Due to the commercial limitations however, we’re unlikely to see 3D-printed drugs manufactured on such a wide basis.

3D printing technology is increasingly finding application in a variety of industry sectors as a means of reducing costs and minimising the time needed to bring new products to market.  In the field of dentistry, the ability to use additive layer manufacturing to produce bespoke dental implants is already a reality.

According to research compiled by Withers & Rogers, the number of international patent applications published per year in the field of 3D printing technology has risen by a factor of ten in the last five years – from around 24 applications in 2010, to 210 in 2014 and approximately 250 in the eight months to the end of August 2015. A further breakdown of these patent families by categories showed that approximately 20 per cent of these applications related to dentistry, medical devices, prosthetics and drugs, providing an indication of where innovators see the most commercial potential for 3D printing.

Dr Nicholas Jones, partner and patent attorney at Withers & Rogers, said:

“There is a great opportunity for makers of medical devices, dental implants and prosthetics to use 3D printing technology to reduce costs and produce high-quality, bespoke products for patients. The sharp increase in applications in these categories shows that innovators believe there is significant untapped market potential.

“By comparison, the number of applications related to 3D-printed drugs is much lower, which is probably a reflection of the significant cost implications of switching from a mass manufacturing to a niche manufacturing model. The bespoke nature of 3D printing technology means that only a relatively small group of patients, with complex and specific medical needs, would ever be likely to benefit from drugs produced in this way.”

One of the areas where 3D-printed drugs could prove viable in the future is paediatric medicine. Very sick children with long-term health conditions may require composite drugs that have to be carefully administered. Dosages have to be carefully calculated based on the weight and height of the patient, which may change over time.

Despite the restricted nature of the market opportunity that exists for such drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently issued approvals for some 3D-printed tablets.  While this clearly demonstrates that regulatory approval is achievable, the economics of producing 3D-printed tablets are unlikely to compete favourably with existing drug production techniques.

Dr Jones added:

“Paediatrics is the area of healthcare which is most likely to benefit from 3D-printed drugs in the future. The benefits of producing complex drug treatments on a bespoke basis, according to current patient data, could eliminate the need for regular appointments with physicians to modulate dosages. However, it would be hard to imagine a time when a 3D-printed drug could compete on price alongside a mass-manufactured, generic version.

“The prospect of 3D-printed drugs has generated some hype in the marketplace but it is important that innovators don’t get carried away. Our research shows that there is little appetite for such innovation among pharmaceutical companies and it is obviously not wise to pursue an R&D strategy that is unlikely to make money.” 

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