Innovations in Medical Care Made Possible by Plastics

Doctors looking at x-ray

Ever stop and look around during a doctor or hospital visit? There are dozens of medical instruments and hygienic tools made possible by plastics. From exam gloves to sterile syringes to IV tubes, plastics are ubiquitous in the medical field because they help protect us, guard against contamination, and save lives.

And recent advances could lead to even more innovations in medical care—and help people all around the world. Here are some examples:

Lifesaving Technologies to the Rescue

  • Plastic Heart: A total artificial heart made with plastics can extend the lives of heart failure patients while they’re waiting for a transplant. The plastic heart replaces both ventricles and the four heart valves—and is adding years to the lives of loved ones.
  • Plastic Foam: A novel use of foam polyurethane plastic may help stabilize trauma patients with serious internal injuries. The U.S. military has funded development of ResQFoam, a self-expanding foam plastic that is injected into the abdomen to help stop internal hemorrhaging. The foam expands inside the body cavity, applying pressure to the wound and conforming around the injured tissue, greatly slowing blood loss to improve the chances of survival.

Preventing the Pain

  • Painless Plastic Injections: Needle injections can be painful, but easier ways to deliver medications are underway. One currently under development is a tiny patch made of many plastic “microneedles” that dissolve once inserted into the skin, releasing the drug at the same time. Another is the MucoJet, a small plastic bulb and cylinder that is held against the inside of the cheek and squeezed, releasing medication through the mouth’s mucosal layer and into the body.
  • Bacteria-Resistant Plastics: Millions of people unfortunately develop infections acquired at hospitals that often occur when thin layers of bacteria colonize on exposed surfaces of medical devices. Researchers are working on a non-stick polymer coating to inhibit bacteria formation. The plastics could be used to make catheters or medical equipment to help ward off preventable disease.

A Helping Hand… or Organ?

  • 3D-Printed Body Parts: We can 3-D print toys, tools, cars, and more. While 3-D printed human body parts aren’t quite here yet, they’re closer than you may think. Researchers are working on printing various body parts such as kidneys, skin, bones, cartilage, tissues, blood vessels, and more made from diverse cell types while using plastics to help keep the part’s structure in shape. And today, 3-D printed plastic body part models are used as research and practice for complex, tough surgeries.
  • Self-Healing Plastics: Researchers are developing new materials with plastics that can self-heal—and they’re using them to develop artificial skin and muscle. The plastic skin mimics the flexibility and sensitivity of human skin and may enable new prosthetics, while the plastic muscle may be used to help move artificial limbs, to replace missing limbs, or even for advanced robots. And both may have the ability to heal themselves, just like human tissue.

If you think about it, all those plastic medical tools you take for granted in your doctor’s office were once revolutionary. And plastics will continue to help drive innovations in medical care that we only dream about today.