The Disruptors: Could personalised, 3D printed medicine be the future?

"We’re developing new commercially-viable treatments for medical needs that aren’t being catered to,

"We’re developing new commercially-viable treatments for medical needs that aren’t being catered to," says Sheng Qi, pictured centre, after her team won the UEA Innovation and Impact Award 2019. - Credit: UEA Business School

Those with complex healthcare needs are used to taking multiple pills every day. But what if you could combine these drugs into a bespoke 3D printed alternative? In the latest The Disruptors video, Sheng Qi explains how her team at the University of East Anglia is working towards the solution.

Sheng Qi and her team won the UEA Innovation and Impact Award 2019 in recognition of their work

Sheng Qi and her team won the UEA Innovation and Impact Award 2019 in recognition of their work Picture: Gary Payne - Credit: UEA Business School

Tell us about the research work happening at the Qi Lab.

We're developing new commercially-viable treatments for medical needs that aren't being catered to.

With a fast moving healthcare trend focusing on personalised prevention, diagnostics and drug use, we believe that small-batch, on-demand personalised medicine manufacturing needs to be developed and can improve therapeutic outcomes and patients' quality of life.


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So right now we're developing 3D printed personalised medicine. As a real-life example, one of the liver transplant patients at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital takes 17 pills each morning to manage their complex conditions - but personalised 3D printing could combine many of these drugs, reducing the number of pills they have to take to just three.

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How did you use invention and innovation to disrupt the market?

Right now there isn't a clear regulatory framework or suitable off-the-shelf printers for printing personalised medicine in this way.

In addition, because of their microstructure, 3D printed medicines can behave very differently in the body compared to tablets and capsules manufactured by conventional methods.

So we're working hard to deliver a pharmaceutical-grade printer that can deliver the quality and precision needed for clinical use.

Sheng Qi and her lab team at the School of Pharmacy of the University of East Anglia are developing

Sheng Qi and her lab team at the School of Pharmacy of the University of East Anglia are developing tools to create a 3D printed medicine that could combine multiple pills into a smaller, more convenient dose. Picture: Sheng Qi - Credit: Sheng Qi

What were the challenges you faced along the way and how did you learn from them?

The pharmaceutical industry is known to be conservative in adopting new manufacturing technologies, so we've developed persistence and resilience along the way.

Instead of directly collaborating with the pharma industry, we've formed an excellent partnership with a regional engineering company that specialises in automation and robotics to develop bespoke pharma-friendly printers.

What's been your proudest moment so far?

Having our innovations recognised when we won the UEA Innovation and Impact Award 2019.

If you were starting from the beginning again, what would you do differently?

A complex project can only be delivered with the right collaborators, so I'd be more thoughtful about the selection of partners.

What are your plans for the future?

To link up with our NHS hospitals and continue communicating with our advisors from within the pharma industry as work towards making 3D printing a direct manufacturing method to produce personalised medicine on-demand for patients.

The Disruptors is a video series highlighting the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge businesses shaking up their respective industries. Read more and follow the series here.

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