Originally Published July 2000
Apart from being a lovely spot to hold any meeting, the Big Island of Hawaii seems especially apropos as a gathering place for a conclave dedicated to the fundamental science of materials and their use in the human body. The site of the recent Sixth World Biomaterials Congress—with its surreal combination of moon-like volcanic vistas, tropical forests, mountain peaks, and active lava flows—is a famously benevolent natural environment where the physical reality of the earth as a work-in-progress is powerfully and spectacularly on view. It is also home to a collection of indigenous plants and animals facing extinction at an alarming rate—an object lesson in the fragility of nature and the complex forces that come into play when species or ecologies interact.
Organized by the Society for Biomaterials in the U.S. in conjunction with biomaterials societies and committees in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, and Korea, the Congress chronicled the emergence of newly created, characterized, or modified materials in more than 1500 technical presentations over six days. (On the seventh day, everyone rested—or flew to Waikiki.)
To give you an idea of a typical talk, I'll now close my eyes, open at random one of the three Transactions volumes, and place my finger on ... "New Biodegradable Polymers as Optimal Delivery Systems for Bone Morphogenetic Proteins: Poly-D, L-Lactic Acid-Para-Dioxanone-Polyethylene Glycol Block Copolymers." The mere title of this abstract—a report on work carried out in the department of orthopedic surgery at the Shinshu University School of Medicine in Nagano, Japan—exemplifies some of the reasons why biomaterials research is currently such an exhilarating arena for many in the field. Biologically active molecules (BMPs, in this case) are increasingly being combined with complex, innovative synthetic materials used in novel ways to promote—among other ambitious objectives—the growth or regeneration of diseased or damaged tissue.
To be sure, a number of the old problems and difficulties remain unsolved. For example, despite decades of effort, an effective material for small-diameter vascular grafts has still to be commercialized. Long-bone fracture repair remains problematic, as does the all-important search for controlled-release insulin delivery. The majority of research reported at the Congress concerns materials that have yet to be fashioned into viable devices, let alone devices that have stood the rigors of clinical trials and regulatory approval. But advances in genomics and proteomics, in various high-throughput cell-processing techniques, in supramolecular and permutational chemistry, and in bioinformatics are prompting more and more observers to declare that a technological "golden age" —that alluring cliché—is near at hand.
It was in the midst of all this high-octane science that a keynote address by Earl Bakken struck a somewhat countervailing note. The inventor of the first transistorized cardiac pacemaker and founder and director emeritus of Medtronic, Bakken now lives on the Big Island and is board president of the North Hawaii Community Hospital, a nonprofit, acute-care facility committed to treating "the patient as a whole person—mind, body, and spirit—in the context of family, culture, and community." Patients have access to the most sophisticated medical equipment and procedures, but more than half also receive traditional ministrations or "healing touch"—some from a renowned, nonagenarian kahuna and master herbalist.
Bakken treated the audience to tales about the Hawaiian deities, including the fire goddess, who sometimes appears as a young woman hitchhiking the misty back roads with a dog. It seemed a parable of inspiration for the assembled technologists: keep your eyes open, stop, don't rule anything out, and learn something.
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