4 Remarkable New Healthcare Innovations Made Possible by Plastics

Professor Plastics

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Female healthcare personnel looking at x-ray images

Healthcare innovations continually amaze me, particularly those enabled by plastics.

Advances in medical technology touch all of us, from preemie babies to senior citizens. Two basic advances alone—sterile plastic packaging and disposable medical items—have helped prevent countless infections, one of the world’s leading causes of death.

Some healthcare innovations that once seemed futuristic have become a part of everyday treatment. Think back (if you’re old enough) to those old medical shows, where a misstep in the operating room would send a fragile glass blood bottle crashing to the floor. Modern advances would seem like miracles to those surgeons dealing with trauma. Today, these innovations have become standard operating procedure … so to speak.

You want to talk futuristic? How about an injectable plastic designed to prevent bleeding on the battlefield or city streets? Fantasy? Nah, just another healthcare innovation that some day we may take for granted. And that just might save the life of someone you love.

So let’s take a look at a few recent healthcare innovations made possible by plastics:

Plastic Meniscus: Approximately 720,000 people have knee replacement surgery each year—that number is expected to soar to 5 million cases by 2030. Enter a potential alternative: a plastic meniscus. What’s a meniscus? It’s the cartilage in your knee between the thigh and shin bones. And as you might imagine, a torn meniscus can hurt … a lot. Plus, it won’t heal on its own, so patients often opt for knee replacement surgery. In 2015, surgeons implanted the first plastic meniscus in the U.S. as a part of an FDA-approved clinical trial (it’s already in use in Europe). This minimally invasive alternative—made possible by plastics—could help avoid major knee replacements.

Plastic To Prevent Bleeding: Researchers are developing an injectable plastic designed to staunch bleeding caused by trauma. A first responder carrying a preloaded syringe would inject the plastic into the patient on site to improve blood clotting and reduce bleeding. Other clotting treatments typically require refrigerated or frozen blood products—this syringe could be carried in a backpack. This device potentially could save countless lives on the battlefield or in places without nearby healthcare. Alas, this healthcare innovation is down the road a bit—researchers say it could reach human clinical trials in five years. 

Disappearing Plastic Stent: Quick vocab lesson: resorbable implants are medical devices typically made with plastics that perform a specific function and then are resorbed by the body. Pretty amazing, right? Sometimes they’re simply called dissolvable.

 While they’re not particularly new, recent advances are leading to materials that can better promote healing and reduce immune response. For example, one device maker sees vast opportunities for improving cardiovascular care using resorbable implants made with the plastic poly glycerol sebacate (PGS). They note that the material more closely simulates the properties of human tissue, resulting in improved compatibility with bodily tissue—so far, just at the academic level.

One really cool plastic device is on the cusp of making the jump from academics to the real world: The FDA panel in 2016 approved a resorbable plastic heart stent that also delivers targeted drugs. The stent does its job—opening a heart blockage and dispensing medication—and then just disappears over time. The device is already used in Europe.

Wait … did Professor Plastics just imply that academics is not the real world? Hmmm …

3-D Printed Plastic Vertebrae: Imagine losing one or more vertebrae to trauma or cancer. Now imagine creating a replacement using biocompatible plastics and 3-D printing. Actually, you don’t need to imagine the latter. The FDA approved such a device in 2015, a load bearing design for long-term replacement of damaged or unstable vertebrae. The plastic mimics the mechanical properties of bone, enabling the body to adapt to the implant.

Kind of amazing. I mean, what’s next? Thin plastic discs that help people see better? Nah …

To learn more about plastics and healthcare innovations, click here.