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New Biomaterials Speed Trend Toward Smaller Medical Devices and Implants

Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers offer performance characteristics that could benefit both patients and surgeons.

Image courtesy of Honeywell

Image courtesy of Honeywell

Growth in the medical device industry has long been driven by innovation, and lately that innovation is coming from the desire to make devices and implants smaller.

This trend is exemplified by the move to minimally invasive implants and techniques such as laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery. The approach leads to faster patient recovery times, less scarring (smaller devices mean the incision can be smaller, too), shorter hospitalization, and a lower total cost of care.

New devices and techniques like these are driving medical device industry growth. The United States is the largest medical device market in the world, valued at $156 billion (in 2017) and expected to grow to $208 billion by 2023, up 33%, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The U.S. had 40% of the global medical device market in 2017.

In developing smaller medical devices and techniques, medical device companies look for bio-materials that reduce the profile of devices without compromising strength, durability, flexibility, and bio-compatibility.

One significant advance in the industry is the increased use of ultra-high polyethylene fiber, which has inherent performance advantages over alternatives such as steel, polyester, and nylon fibers. This material known as ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber is used in the design of smaller medical devices or implants.

The UHMWPE fiber is stronger and thinner; has a higher resistance to chemicals, fatigue, and abrasion; and has lower friction for easier movement than many alternative fibers. UHMWPE fiber does not pose the same health risks as alternative fibers that can disintegrate over time and potentially enter a patient’s bloodstream, causing infection and pain.

Some of the medical devices commonly using UHMWPE fiber include:

  • Bone Sutures. About five years ago, the fiber was introduced in suture applications to repair bone breaks. This fiber exceeds the strength offered by current materials such as steel, silk, and polyester, but at the same time, it is soft on surgeons’ hands.
  • Guidewires in cardiovascular procedures. The fiber is also used as a guidewire in cardiovascular procedures. As a guidewire, the fiber snakes through a catheter to deliver and/or retract a medical device or implant. Although steel wire is often used in this procedure, the UHMWPE fiber is smaller, lighter, stronger, and more flexible.
  • “Muscles and tendons” for robotic motion. The fiber is used as an actuator mechanism in surgical robots, helping the robotic arms move to perform minimally invasive procedures. They essentially act as the robot’s muscles and tendons.

Safer for Patients and Doctors

These UHMWPE fibers have performance advantages for both patients and surgeons performing procedures as a result of its physical characteristics. Some examples:

  • Conformance to Structure Shapes. The UHMWPE fibers are more flexible and can be used to make sutures that conform to the bone, unlike steel sutures, which can potentially cut into the bone.
  • Higher breaking strength. UHMWPE fibers are stronger than other materials used in sutures for in tendon or muscle repair; sutures that break can cause further injury.
  • Softer and More Flexible. UHMWPE fiber is softer and more flexible than other suture materials, which allows surgeons to navigate sutures through narrower openings than steel cable. Sutures made from UHMWPE also do not leave sharp, jagged individual strands when cut.
  • Inert and Hypoallergenic. UHMWPE is inert and hypoallergenic. In comparison, steel wire in a body can become brittle and disintegrate over time.

As the medical device industry evolves to smaller devices and implants, UHMWPE fiber will likely play a significant role in the development of new, effective, and promising innovations that contribute to the growth of the medical device market.

Abey Paul

Abey Paul

Abey Paul is a global business director at Honeywell International Inc. He manages the Spectra UHMWPE Medical Fiber business and helps medical device manufacturers find the right fiber solutions for their products.

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