3D technology set to revolutionise pharma and healthcare

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It might be before your time, but some of us remember how excited we were when 3D technology first burst onto the scene in the 1980s. Flimsy 3D glasses, complete with red and green lenses, were given away in cereal packets – this was the future and we could feel part of it. Then we quickly lost interest and 3D disappeared for decades. 3D films are now taken for granted by children of today, such is the pace of technology. 3D technology is now shaping the future of the life sciences, healthcare and pharma industries, and the infinite possibilities of 3D medicines, treatments and techniques are something that the grown-ups are getting really excited about. 

Printed pills

The development of 3D printed medicines is seen by industry insiders as representing a major change in how the pharma industry delivers drugs to patients. 

Simon Shen, CEO of 3D printer brand, XYZprinting, thinks that 3D printing of pills will allow for personalised medicines which address the needs of different patients. 

“The true advantage of 3D printing in pharmaceuticals is a capacity for personalisation. 3D printing can tailor the content and size of drugs to a patient’s needs, as their condition progresses,” he said.

“The pharmaceutical industry will likely become far more individually tailored and thereby more effective. The ability for pharmacies to print prescriptions on demand will be the one of the most significant shifts that this technology will bring to the healthcare landscape, impacting on costs of production and creating a deeper understanding between practitioners and patients,” he added.

According to Design Engineer Jeremy Kooyman, of Cambridge Design Partnership, precision printing of pharmaceutical products will “fundamentally change how patients and payers interact with their pharmacists and the healthcare system”. 

“Rather than a one-pill-fits-all approach, a pharmacist could modify a blueprint to tailor a treatment for a patient’s body mass or gene profile, while customising the shape and taste to encourage dosing compliance,” he elaborated. “You could even imagine combining multiple medicinal products together to reduce the number of pills a patient would need to take, drastically reducing the potential for under/overdoses, missed doses, and incorrect doses – all of which are linked with a startling rate of mortality in the developed world.”


The future for 3D printing is taking us into a new era, although there is still some way to go: “In the longer term 3D printing offers the possibility of printing biological implants, or even entire replacement organs, such as kidneys. This is a little further off, however, and it is still in the proof-of-concept stage,” said Cyan Collier, Innovations Director of Incuna.

Collier adds that 3D printing additionally offers improvements in areas such as prosthetics and replacements for plaster casts and braces, in the short term. 

“For example, a 3D printed plastic lattice cast will be lightweight and allow a patient with a broken arm to take showers with their cast. This technology is pretty much ready to go, and it is just a matter of time before we start seeing it entering mainstream use,” he explained.

Holographic imaging

Edinburgh-based Holoxica is helping to develop a prototype holographic 3D video representation to visualise medical images from CT, MRI and ultrasound scanners. The display is able to create 3D images in mid-air, allowing doctors, consultants and surgeons to visualise scans live. This is expected to lead to better outcomes for patients, including faster diagnosis, improved treatment and better quality surgery.

The technology addresses the visualisation of 3D volumetric data from medical scanning devices, such as ultrasounds and MRIs. Driven by the need to deliver faster, more efficient and cost-effective healthcare, these devices have increasingly appeared in hospitals and medical centres over the past two decades, while their performance has also continued to improve.

Holoxica’s CEO Javid Khan insists that this application of 3D technology will have a positive impact on outcomes and patient experience within the NHS: “The benefits of the holographic volumetric display include quicker interpretation of 3D scan images, faster surgery and better quality surgical procedures,” he explained. “In addition, it will be possible to educate patients and provide them with a more intuitive overview of complex procedures.”

Medical professionals and students will also benefit, through teaching, training, diagnostics, planning and live surgery. Holoxica is currently selling static digital holograms to university medical schools, teaching hospitals and medical imaging research centres. 

“We have already holographically imaged the entire human anatomy, plus all of the organs from all modalities; CT, MRI and ultrasound sonography.”

According to Khan, the UK is currently lagging behind on developing this technology – Holoxica is the only commercial group working in this area. 

“There are a smattering of university groups working on this, including Cambridge University. Most of the research is being conducted by the US military, and groups in Asia [Japan, China and Korea], where next generation holographic 3D technology is enshrined in their national R&D programmes,” he said. “We have no such programmes here in the UK or Europe – most of our activities tend to mirror things happening elsewhere.” 


Dassault Systèmes have an entire division devoted to 3D life sciences and CSO Reza Sadeghi is optimistic about the potential of organ production: “Major advances have been made in the 3D printing of human tissue. Organovo has commercialised 3D-printed human liver tissue for preclinical drug discovery testing and progressive research at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. This has led to 3D printed human kidneys and has paved a path for 3D printing of more complex organs in the future, such as the heart.” 

It is now possible to create, from standard medical imaging – such as an MRI – a 3D patient-specific ‘digital twin’ 3D model of the heart for detailed analysis, which could lead to much more personalised medicine.

“Conditions, such as mitral valve regurgitation, can be reproduced in 3D silicone,” enthused Sadeghi. “Treatment options can be simulated digitally to identify the most effective treatment.” 

It is becoming clear that 3D has gone from being a disposable novelty to a highly-sophisticated healthcare reality which has could save millions of lives. For pharma, it is taking us to another dimension – quite literally. 


Images courtesy Dassault Systémes