How Do 3D-Printed Drugs Work, Exactly?

This is one of those "huh, wow, OK" kinds of stories — the ones that make you realize you really are living in an age of startling technological advancement. Not because it's unexpected, exactly, but because it's just so strange and cool. On Monday, the FDA approved the first-ever 3D-printed drug. It's a new type of anti-seizure medication produced by Aprecia Pharmeceuticals. You read that right: There's a drug coming that's 3D-printed to accommodate individual patient needs, and it could be the wave of the future.

Its full name is Spritam levetiracetam, dubbed simply "Spritam" for advertising purposes. According to the company, it's produced by way of 3D-printing layers upon layers of the drug on top of itself, until each pill reaches the precise dosage required. And according to CNN Money, there's a very concrete benefit to this technique: 3D-printing the pills allows for dosages up to 1000 milligrams to be porous enough to dissolve rapidly in water, which is a boon for any epileptic patients who have trouble swallowing whole tablets. Here's how Aprecia explains the process on their website:

Using our proprietary, computer-aided, 3DP manufacturing process, Aprecia developed the ZipDose® Technology platform, which is designed to enable delivery of high-dose medications in a rapidly disintegrating form ... Thin layers of powdered medication are repeatedly spread on top of one another, as patterns of liquid droplets (an aqueous fluid) are deposited or printed onto selected regions of each powder layer. Interactions between the powder and liquid bond these materials together at a microscopic level.

This is just one more example of 3D printers having an outsized impact on tech, health, and medicine in ways that would've seemed impossible to predict in decades past. The technology is being used for some pretty noble causes — like trying to generate organs for transplantation — and some not-so-noble ones — like designing home-built handguns, some of which are almost entirely plastic and thus invisible to metal detectors.

Thankfully, this innovation would seem to fall squarely into the former category. As somebody who used to have a tough time swallowing medicine, I can easily imagine how useful this will be for epilepsy sufferers; children in particular. And as the BBC details, this also allows pharmaceutical drugs to be tailored more specifically to individual patients, since the number of layers in the drugs can be tweaked, thereby increasing or decreasing the dosage.

To be clear, this isn't a drug just anyone can get. Epilepsy is a serious and specific medical condition, and you'll need a prescription for it. But if all goes well, don't be surprised to see this kind of approach taken with more new drugs in the future. The flexibility this could give manufacturers and patients alike sounds undeniably exciting.