December 2015

$550 billion. That’s how big the 3D-printing industry is expected to be in 2025. The healthcare industry is poised to comprise a big chunk of that total, with prosthetics, dental implants, hearing aids, and customized orthotics already being created via 3D-printing. But some of the most exciting possibilities for 3D printing in healthcare aren’t even on the market yet.

Here are a few reasons big pharma should invest in 3D-printing technologies now–or risk getting left behind for good:

3D-printing will replace pharmacies one day

Calvin Yu-Chian Chen, a researcher from Taiwan, is working on developing a DrugPrinter that can instantly print any drug. Although there are four methods to position atoms within the DrugPrinter, the most common strategy uses optical tweezers to synthesize a drug, one atom at a time. The concept of its reactor chamber comes from, of all things, a traditional Chinese egg-cake oven.

3D-printed medicine has obvious applications in hospitals. Doctors could change a client’s prescription on the spot, or print out a pill with a custom dosage. But Lee Cronin, a scientist at Glasgow University, has plans to take the technology a step further: He hopes users of his 3D-printer prototype will one day go to an online drugstore with a prescription, buy the “blueprint” for a drug and chemical “ink” that comes in a pre-sealed cartridge, and print out their own prescription at home.

While there’s certainly a bit of concern regarding the potential for consumers to make their own drugs using 3D-printing, that’s really the worst-case scenario–and is still 20-30 years away. Because medication is often used to deal with dangerous, sometimes life-threatening afflictions, most people will likely still value the credibility that comes with pharmaceutical companies. Even if Cronin’s printer becomes the norm, consumers will still have to buy the blueprints and ink from the pharmacy or pharmaceutical company–a tremendous financial opportunity that should be invested in now.

Drug testing on 3D-printed tissues will replace animal trials

Scientists have already begun to bioprint living tissues in the lab. One day, they may even be able to bioprint entire organs, eliminating today’s long waiting lists for transplants. Until then, though, bioprinting has a much more immediate application: a safer, faster drug testing process than what we have today.

Current FDA rules require that companies test new drugs on animals before they begin human trials. Besides the obvious ethical pitfalls, this process is inefficient, as animal cells don’t always behave the same way as human ones. 3D-printing human tissues offers an obvious way around these problems. The San Diego-based startupOrganovo has already begun testing cancer drugs on 3D-bioprinted human tissue–soon, more companies are likely to follow suit. With nimble startups moving quickly in the biologics creation wave, they will likely overtake big pharma’s competitive advantage in drug production before long.

Enterprise applications of 3D-printing will make the biggest profits

Thanks to low-cost Chinese upstarts, consumer 3D-printing is likely to become very cheap very quickly. But in enterprise-oriented niche markets like biomaterials, there will be plenty of profit to be made. Not only are the premiums for these kinds of markets expected to remain high, the competition isn’t great. With so many possibilities for the industry, few companies are researching the exact same thing.

Currently, there are really only two major 3D-printing companies: 3DSystems andStratasys. Both have developed technology for medical use. This is a profitable segment of the healthcare industry; rather than spending time and resources developing, say, a simple cast, the printers quickly and inexpensively customize it. But the broader scope of their efforts leaves an opportunity for startups that focus on a more specific niche, such as bioprinting human tissue. For big pharma, acquiring or investing in such startups would be a good move.

3D-printing is a strong complement to existing technologies

3D printers should be used in conjunction with traditional techniques to enable mass customization of highly complex end-products. One possible avenue for this is prosthetics, already a burgeoning sector of the 3D-printing industry. 3D-printed prosthetics are often thousands of dollars cheaper than traditional ones, making them a great alternative for children who outgrow each new prosthetic quickly.

In the end, the market is moving in this direction, whether big pharma likes it or not. So it’s best to get involved as soon as possible. The capabilities of 3D-printers are only growing: The current simple .STL printing format might be replaced by a more sophisticated Additive Manufacturing File (AMF), allowing more complex information to be transmitted and for more complex materials to be used, like integrated sensors, circuits, and batteries.

The potential for profit is high with the use of bioprinting. Big pharma should investigate where it can make the most impact–whether it’s in purchasing a startup, partnering with an established company, or developing and providing base biologics ink for printing.

With contribution by the Whale Path research community and Joey Held of Hippo Reads.


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