3-D printers have recently become a technology of the future, but now University scientists are taking printing capabilities to a whole other level.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have been working on a technology that can print medications onto a variety of surfaces, possibly changing the way medications are distributed and personalized.

Max Shtein, professor of materials science and engineering and lead researcher of the study identified the three major issues with pharmaceuticals that inspired him and his team to initiate this research –– their discovery, their manufacture and how they are administered and prescribed.

“In discovering pharmaceuticals, it turns out that for a very large number of compounds that people will create to treat various diseases, they can’t really advance very far in the study of those compounds because they don’t dissolve,” Shtein said. “And that is an issue that affects something like 40 percent of newly discovered drugs. For some types of diseases and some classes of molecules, this is an even more severe problem. For example, a lot of the cancer drugs that people are making that are small molecules can’t dissolve very well.”

As for the manufacturing of these pharmaceuticals, Shtein brought up issues of mass production, which leads to the inability to personalize medicines.

“You have to manufacture things in pretty large quantities, and you have to do it very safely; things have to be sterile, for example,” he said. “And this can be very difficult to do at large scale using the methods that are currently being used. Another problem is that due to regulations, when you go to manufacture large quantities of a medicine to get it to large amounts of people, there are strict regulations in terms of the changes that you can make to the medicine, and it turns out that you can’t really make many changes.”

This is a problem, Shtein said, because the best treatment for any disease varies from person to person and is based on a variety of factors including weight, tolerance and activity levels. Since treatments now consist pretty regularly of one pill, there isn’t much room for variation among patients.

Additionally, Shtein brought up the problems that exist with patient compliance when it comes to prescribed medications.

“It turns out that half of the people are taking two or more medications simultaneously, and when people do that you start having to take lots of pills, and in some cases it’s pills plus injections, and nobody likes doing that,” Shtein said. “Especially folks that have complex combination therapies. So apparently half of poor patient outcomes can be traced back to poor compliance with treatment.”

After identifying these issues, Shtein said, he and his team worked to find solutions to each issue with a “back-and-forth process,” testing and proving each solution they came up with. With the help of Rackham student Olga Shalev, they were able to create the printer they did.

Shalev became involved in the research after working on another project using organic vapor-jet printing to solve various issues within the organic electronics industry. Shalev noticed the crystalline structures she was studying were chemically similar to structures used in medicine, and she began to experiment with this idea.

“I thought that this might actually be useful for various applications in the medical industry,” Shalev said. “I started collaborations with professors from the College of Pharmacy, the Medical School, Physics Department — many different fields, just consulting them and asking if this would help them.”

It turns out this technology would help them, and there are already promising discoveries being made.

“We took actual cultures of cancer cells and we showed that when you print the drug in a film form using our technique, our film can act even better than the powder form,” Shalev said.

The collaboration of diverse areas of the University mentioned by Shalev was something that was central to the project, according to another member of the research team, Anna Schwendeman.

“I like this project as it shows collaborative strength of the environment on University of Michigan campus,” Schwendeman said. “It involves two faculty from College of Engineering, two from College of Pharmacy and faculty for LSA/Physics.”

The new technology allows for an “unprecedented level of control,” according to Shtein, in terms of how much of the medication is released and where it goes.

As for next steps, Shalev and Shtein said it was time to collaborate with different companies in order to further their progress.

“We are now looking into various collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and research in and outside the University,” Shalev said. “We are open to ideas.”

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