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How a Shape Memory Polymer Could Drive Medical Device Innovation

Shape-shifting thiolene/acrylates could open the door for a whole new host of applications in medtech, according to Walter E. Voit, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. 

Walter Voit
Walter E. Voit

Speaking Thursday at MD&M Minneapolis, Voit said 3M Co. undertook research on thiol-type polymers in the late 1970s, but shelf life issues and small commercial markets prevented their adoption.. But it was only in recent years that Voit and fellow researchers at UT Dallas latched on to it for its ability to soften and change shape under human body temperatures.

So far, it has been tested on animals, but Voit said Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is "really pushing to get some of these devices into people in the next half decade."  Devices could include implantable nerve tags that could read electrical signals in an arm stump to power a robotic prosthetic such as Machester, NH-based DEKA's Luke Arm.

Voit and his team have a whole host of partnerships with companies seeking to develop devices with the substance. Not only can it be engineered to change shape in a specific way inside the body, but it has great adhesion with metals such as gold--which makes it a highly useful flexible electronics material, Voit says.

"We get orders of magnitude better adhesion," Voit said.

There are also processing advantages compared to other polymers such as PEEK, according to Voit. It remains smooth up to temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius. And aging tests have shown that it can hold up for at least 10 years.

The substance could enable self-coiling cochlear implants inside the ear, electrodes that coil around a nerve, and a host of cardiovascular implants. Chris Bowman from the University of Colorado-Boulder has been engaged in pioneering work on dental applications with thiol-based polymers. 

Walter E. Voit, assistant professor of the University of Texas at Dallas, holds semiconductor electronics embedded inside a thiol-based polymer film. The matrix-addressed transistor arrays used to stimulate nerves in a rats brain.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice San Jose, December 3-4, 2014.

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

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