Many of the new plastics on display at the recent MD&M West show in Anaheim, Calif. were developed specifically to help fight disease, especially the infections that hospital staff and patients are getting in large numbers. Most of these materials have been developed with antimicrobial properties, some in varying levels that can be tuned for specific medical device or equipment applications. The durable, multi-use versions of these plastics may be also applicable to other uses where surfaces are being touched by many different hands, such as ATM machines, automobile interiors, and consumer electronics.
Other properties include the ability to remain intact after experiencing different sterilization environments. There's also the beginnings of a lightweighting trend in medical devices, Bruce Fine, Bayer MaterialScience's market segment leader for medical and consumer products, told us at the show. So far, most of the other company spokespeople I interviewed said that this was a side effect, so to speak, of the replacement of metals by medical-grade plastics. In any case, medical devices are definitely getting smaller and lighter in weight.
Click on the image below to see some of these innovations -- it will feel like you were there.
DuPont Performance Polymers showcased its wide range of plastics for medical and healthcare applications. These materials are similar to engineering resins and thermoplastics, but have been adapted for medical use. "They have similar chemistries, but we provide heightened manufacturing controls and testing," Diana Salvadori, North America healthcare manager, told us. They include Delrin POM and Hytrel, as well as the more recent Delrin SC 699. On exhibit was the Rhythm Foot, shown here, the second-generation version of the flexible yet durable prosthetic Niagara Foot made by Niagara Prosthetics. The original version was injection molded in one piece from DuPont's Hytrel 8238 thermoplastic polyester elastomer. This prosthetic device was designed for very active people, such as soldiers who've lost a foot due to landmines. The material, combined with the design, lets the device act as a spring, giving the wearer a more natural gait. (Source: DuPont Performance Polymers)
Greg, I agree, and that's why I was pleasantly surprised to find how many medical-grade plastics manufacturers are addressing the sterilization issue, including materials that can withstand multiple types of sterilization chemicals and processes.
I'm thinking that what 3drob noted about things not being all that easy to wipe down is due to the increased desire for more pleasing surroundings. As they give the hospitals a more "homey" feel, they also by necessity make it harder to maintain.
A big challenge in medical product design is to identify and specify plastics that survive the harsh chemicals used when wiping down surfaces for sterilization. I'm glad to see plastic suppliers continue to address this issue and develop plastics that are more resistant to chemicals and bacterial growth.
Really scary to hear about this personal story about catching something from the hospital. In addition to plastics, 3drob, hospitals are trying out other new techniques to try to keep things clean. At Johns Hopkins there is a robot that is spraying disinfectant into the air to try to prevent people from catching these hospital superbugs: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/renesas-electronics-unveils-low-power-microcontroller-family-with-up-to-1mb-of-on-chip-flash-2013-03-06
So you're right, there is more they can do to keep things clean so people don't fall ill from the place that is supposed to make them better.
Rob, the rise of super-bugs is due in part to over-prescription of antibiotics for people and the less widely known use of antibiotics in animals raised for food, as well as poor control of disease in hospital environments. Antimicrobial materials can at least not give organisms a place to grow and spread if present, and harm sick people in hospitals even further, but they're not the cause of the bugs or their spread in the first place.
After a trip to the Emergency room, my whole family picked up the Rotovirus (a lot of people were there with the bug at the time), so this rings personal for me. We were careful (bordering paranoid) not to touch things, which leads me to think it's more the staff than the objects. As I sat there looking around, I couldn't help but think that so much more could be done to make the areas less prone to disease transmission (from the beds, chairs, curtains, tables, etc.) Making things easy to wipe down, easy to remove and sterilize, hard to capture/hold fluids seems the obvious first steps.
I like that they are developing plastics capable of surviving sterilization (presumably including autoclaving), but it worries me when they start embedding anything anti-microbial. Hospitals are becoming the engineering / breeding grounds of super bugs, and it's the over use of antimicrobial materials that is the root cause.
I agree, Liz. We don't normally think of plastic as a means for fighting disease, but they do in fact play a role in the medical systems that help us recuperate. The MD&M Show is always a great place to see materials, and this is an impressive compilation of this year's best.
Thanks for this, Ann, it's nice to see plastic being used for some worthy products. Infections in hospitals are a real problem. It's not an exaggeration to say people are sometimes more sick when they leave than when they go in. I in fact just heard of a friend's father who passed away from an infection he picked up in a hospital after he had a successful operation. So it's no joke. I hope these products help prevent such things from occurring in the future.
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