From hygienic syringes to IV tubes to sterile exam gloves, plastics have played an integral role in the safety and effectiveness of modern medicine for the past several decades. And plastics continue to enable new advances—including medical implants—that deliver more benefits to patients than ever before. Here are some examples of these emerging innovations:
3-D Printed Plastic Implants
Surgeons recently replaced 75 percent of a patient’s skull with an implant made from PEKK biomedical polymer, a medical plastic designed with a density and stiffness similar to bone. To create the implant, technicians used a 3-D printer to build layer upon layer of plastic based on a computer model of the patient’s skull—enabling a customized fit. Experts predict the same technology eventually could be used for a variety of implants throughout the body.
Therapeutic Plastic Coatings
Researchers are developing plastic coatings that may improve the effectiveness of medical implants and help prevent rejection by the body. Some medical implants are enhanced with a plastic coating designed to deliver medication to the site of the implant. Others are coated with plastics that have antimicrobial properties to reduce the risk of infection.
Dissolving Plastic Stents
Recent advances in medical plastics have enabled the development of bioresorbable plastic stents (or vascular scaffolds). These devices may be used to open blocked blood vessels—then they dissolve inside the body, so there’s no expected need for additional surgery to remove the stent. The bioresorbable plastics also can be formulated to release medication to the surrounding area, enhancing the stent’s effectiveness and reducing the chance of complications.
Electronic Plastic Implants
Small electronic implants may eventually help doctors learn more about what’s happening inside the body or help prepare a patient for treatment. Researchers are embedding electronics in specially designed plastics that are rigid when implanted but become soft inside the body—allowing them to wrap around three-dimensional structures such as bones.
Self-Healing Plastic Implants
Researchers are experimenting with self-healing plastics to create medical implants that could potentially repair themselves if they break—eliminating the need for surgery to repair or replace damaged implants.