How to Spark a Revolution in Medical Plastics

The medical device industry has been pretty much using the same plastics and polymers for decades: workhorse materials including polyurethanes; polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE (marketed in other fields as Teflon by Dupont); and polyethylene terephthalate (sometimes marketed as Dacron) have been medtech mainstays. 

Michael Drues
Michael Drues

And while Vascular Sciences president Michael Drues thinks such materials have played a commendable role advancing medtech, he can't help but thinking the industry could be doing even better with new materials.

"I'm just trying to raise the bar. I'm ultimately trying to make the world a better place," says Drues, who is slated to deliver two separate talks--on bioresorbable polymers and regulatory response best practices--at MD&M Minneapolis, October 29-30.

Here are three ways Drues thinks medical plastics could improve:

1. Embracing New Materials--Especially Ones That Are Natural

Ask a medical device engineer what types of plastics and polymers they use, and one hears the usual suspects, Drues said. But ask a molecular biologist about materials inside the body, and there's talk of nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and carbohydrates.

"One could easily argue, 'Gee, instead of using all these materials that were never designed to go inside of the body, maybe we should look at how the body was designed to work. And what kind of materials could we use from the biological perspective?  ... We've been using ostensibly the same materials for decades, so it's about time we get past that," Drues said.

Collagen, for example, is a natural polymer already used in applications including bone grafts and vascular closure during after cardiac catheterizations.  Says Drues: "Collagen is a perfect example of what I would call a bio-friendly material."

Other advances involving natural materials covered in Qmed include silk-based orthopedic screws and plates, and a novel bioadhesive inspired by barnacles.

2. Thinking Outside the Box about Devices and Needed Materials

Instead of latching onto a plastic that works well with one particular drug coating or biologic, the emphasis should be on materials that work well with a wide array of therapeutics.

"We're not going to be putting these type of substances on the device in advance, in a manufacturing facility somewhere.

That's not applicable when it comes to drugs and biologics," Drues said. "One of the trends is to apply these therapeutics at the patient's bedside."

What people consider devices should be viewed more as delivery mechanisms.

"We should think of stents, and catheters and valves and things like that as syringes. ... We don't design a syringe to be specific to deliver a particular drug or a particular biologic at a given time," Drues said.

Better yet, "you can design a lot of these devices to be like a sponge."

Perhaps device designers shouldn't see an advantage in the ability of a substance such as PTFE to be chemically inert.

"I question that assumption. There's nothing in your body that's inert. It's all reacting in some way," Drues said.

3. Thinking Differently About Coatings

"You can choose one of these materials to give you the mechanical properties you want, but you can coat it to give it the surface properties you want," Drues said of medical plastics.

There are already coatings that, say, promote slippery or lubricious properties, but such coatings are primitive compared with what might be done with biological coatings, according to Drues.

"The patients' immune system, more specifically the white blood cells--they're not going to see the device, they're going to see the coating. And if it's biologic, it's going to make them very happy," Drues said.

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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