HP Develops Inkjet Printer Technology to Aid Drug Discovery

HP digital titration uses inkjet technology to measure the precise dosages of medications needed to fight diseases at considerably lower cost than even the existing automated processes currently used to test experimental drugs.

Hewlett-Packard's Specialty Printing Systems division has unveiled a High-Performance Digital Dispensing System based on its inkjet technology that will enable biologists to develop and test medications at more precise dosages than traditional analog methods to combat illnesses.

HP Specialty Printing Systems licenses thermal inkjet technology to allow companies to integrate the technology into their industrial platforms, HP reports.

The Digital Dispensing System includes a hardware dispenser resembling a printer, a repurposed printhead and digital-titration software.

With thermal inkjet chips the size of a pen tip, biologists can measure how much of a drug is necessary to save healthy cells from those that are disease-ridden, Kevin Peters, senior technologist for high-performance dispensing at HP Specialty Printing Systems, told eWEEK.

HP has posted a video of its digital-titration process on its Website. Titration is a common laboratory method for determining the concentration of chemical compounds such as medications.

The traditional serial dilution process using test tubes to measure dosages for drug discovery is time-consuming and error-prone, according to HP. Costly robotic machines perform the task.

HP claims that it can streamline the drug-discovery process from the 70 steps of the serial-dilution process to just a couple of steps with digital titration, making the process more accurate.

"When it's performed by old analog technologies, it's extremely wasteful, very cumbersome and costly because it's such a complicated protocol," Peters said. "We've addressed this same essential ubiquitous function with a very simple low-waste, high-efficiency way to perform the titration."

The serial-dilution process involves using an array of 16 test tubes and dropping the medication into the test tubes using pipettes.

Drug discovery involves finding molecules that show a detectible positive interaction with a disease target, like a tumor cell or virus, Joe Dody, business manager of high-performance dispensing at HP Specialty Printing Systems, told eWEEK. Lab tests lead to trials with animals and then humans.

"A lot of times a drug takes 15 years to go through that entire process to get a blockbuster drug," Dody said. Failed attempts cost $1.5 billion, he added.

The dispenser and direct digital titration software power the thermal inkjet chips. Pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are using HP's digital titration technology to develop new drugs.

"It's as simple as a printer except the biologist adds their own 'ink'; the ink is really their experimental pharmaceutical drug," Peters said. "The drug is where the ink used to be, the test tubes are where the paper used to be and the dispenser is like a printer."

Biologists can use the inkjet technology to work with smaller doses-even one tiny droplet-than they would in the traditional serial-dilution process, he said.

"One droplet gives the very lowest dose they can, which is literally the size of the red blood cell," Peters explained. "We've miniaturized it and simplified it so they can load their own fluids rather than HP factory fluids," he added.

The printer-like dispenser that biologists will use holds a clear plate with dots resembling dimples and small white rectangular wells that serve as the test tube in which the drugs will be dispensed to combat diseased cells, Dody explained.

When you push Go on the dispenser, the equivalent of Print on a printer, the algorithm of the digital titration software directs the dispenser to load the drug into a printhead, according to Dody.

"This software is what allows the researcher to very easily set up experiments, and the more complicated the experiment is, the more there is a differentiation between what we offer and what can be done with robotic systems," Dody said. "It's very hard to do complex experiments with automated pipettes."

HP announced the development of its Digital Dispensing System on Feb. 28.

In the future, inkjet technology may also be applied to in-vitro diagnostics, HP reports.

"Inkjet technology brings the same efficiencies to the drug-discovery process that it brought to printing, allowing for on-demand, small-volume, high-precision production at costs significantly lower than existing analog processes," Mark Hanley, president of IT Strategies, an inkjet technology research firm, said in a statement.