U. LEEDS (UK) —A new way of printing medicine on the outside of pills could potentially create safer, faster-acting medicines and bring new drugs to market faster.

“Some active ingredients can be dissolved in a liquid, which then behaves like normal ink, so then the process is fairly straightforward,” explains Nik Kapur, an engineering professor at the University of Leeds.

“However, when you’re working with active ingredients that don’t dissolve, the particles of the drug are suspended in the liquid, which creates very different properties and challenges for use within a printing system.

“For some tablets, you may also need higher concentrations of active ingredients to create the right dose, and this will affect how the liquid behaves.”

The pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has already developed a way of printing active pharmaceutical ingredients onto tablets, but the process can only be applied to 0.5 percent of all medicines used in tablet form. The researchers hope the new project will see an increase to 40 percent.

A medicine droplet is 20 times larger than an ink droplet in a standard ink-jet system, so the challenges facing the researchers include the numbers of drops that each tablet can hold, and how to increase the level of active ingredient in each drop.

The research will also look at the properties and behavior of the suspension, the shape and size of the printing nozzle, and ways to pump the suspension through the printing equipment.

Because the active ingredient is on the surface and the pill would no longer have to be broken down by the digestive system before it enters the bloodstream, the researchers say drugs produced this way would be faster acting.

Ultimately it would also be possible to print several drugs onto one pill, reducing the number of tablets to be swallowed by patients on multiple medicines.

Printing active ingredients onto pre-formed tablets also speeds up and improves quality control, because each tablet contains exactly the correct dose.

With some of the current quality assurance procedures rendered unnecessary, new drugs would reach patients more quickly.

Scientists from Durham University are contributing to the study, which is expected to run for two years.

More news from the University of Leeds: www.leeds.ac.uk/news