The future of medical materials
Those of us who are old enough will remember the 1966 film Fantastic trip. It was a submarine reduced to a microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of a famous scientist with a miniaturized crew. These were able to remove a blood clot in the physicist’s brain and, as a result, save his life.
The plot would have seemed entertaining but completely whimsical for most of the years since then. The fact that it has a less wacky quality now – although still a long way from our current experiences in terms of a precise scenario – is due to two things: the general speed of advancement in medical technology and the increasing use of nanotechnology. , which involves downscaling devices and their components to molecular levels.
Drivers for these developments have included the desire for reduced risk of infection, improved healing properties, more effective implants, and better but less intrusive monitoring. All of this has led to a veritable tide of new materials and old materials being used in completely new ways, with cutting edge and crossover technology making it all possible.
Of course, we all know the role the electronics and semiconductor industries have played in improving patient care, through diagnostic equipment and implants. Emphasis has been placed on establishing materials that do not degrade in the body or present a risk of having an adverse effect on the recipient.
From stainless steel, the transition has been made to platinum iridium, titanium and the PEEK-Optima polymer, which is used in a variety of engineering applications.
New material frontiers
“Scientists have developed ultra-thin, flexible implants containing metal electrodes embedded in silk. “
American researchers recently announced the first use of flexible silicon technology for a medical application with the creation of a new type of implantable device to measure the electrical production of the heart. The device, which is made up of flexible ribbons of nanoscale silicon encrusted with 288 electrodes, allows electronic circuits to be brought to the tissue rather than placing them at a distance, which in turn allows a number much higher electrodes to sense or stimulation. And to get a little closer to science fiction territory, a team of scientists in Barcelona experimented with inserting semiconductors into single cells, a technique that could bring significant benefits for medical monitoring to the to come up.
Electronics are also now associated with textiles – especially silk – to help people with neurological disorders. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois and Tufts University have developed ultra-thin, flexible implants containing metal electrodes embedded in silk. These can squeeze the brain like shrink wrap, collapse into its grooves, and stretch over its rounded surfaces. In people with epilepsy, implants could be used to detect the onset of a seizure and deliver impulses to stop it. In people with spinal cord injuries, the technology shows promise for reading complex signals in the brain that direct movement and channeling those signals to healthy muscles or prostheses.
Gems and metals also play an important role in taking healthcare to the next level. Diamonds have often played a role in industrial contexts. Now, a study from Northwestern University has shown that coupling the contrast agent used in magnetic resonance imaging with a nanodiamond results in significantly improved signal intensity and therefore vivid image contrast.
Using nanoparticle technology, antimicrobial silver is also applied to device surfaces – a strategy that protects against life-threatening infections by preventing biofilm formation on the equipment.
Transform old into new
A number of old materials are getting a facelift in the quest for improved treatments.
“Using nanoparticle technology, antimicrobial silver is applied to the surfaces of the device.”
Wooden prostheses have been around for thousands of years – the first known reference was made around 500 BC. However, the wood gets a 21st turn of the century with the announcement that Italian scientists from the Institute of Ceramics Science and Technology in Faenza have subjected wood to a variety of processes that transform it into a material closer to bone. This development paves the way for prosthetic devices, which come close to the extraordinary performance of human tissue.
Glass is also getting into the action with the development of a method of grouping together thousands of nanoscale glass tubes, each with a conductive carbon core. This technology can allow bundles of artificial neurons to interface with prostheses and be used in nervous system surgery.
A wealth of materials with origins ranging from ancient history to the space age, as well as an interdisciplinary approach to science, contribute to current advances in medical technology. And that means today’s sci-fi might become reality sooner than you think.