MD+DI Online is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Sitemap


Articles from 2020 In July


Stryker Beats Consensus but Still Feels COVID-19 Sting

Sundry Photography-stock.adobe.com IMG_Jul312020at33513PM.jpg

Orthopedic companies are feeling the pressures of COVID-19 and the virus’s negative effect on elective surgeries. Stryker Corp’s 2Q20 earnings were negatively impacted even though the Kalamazoo, MI-based company was able to beat consensus forecast.

Stryker said net sales of $2.8 billion decreased 24.3% in the quarter and 23.5% in constant currency. Organic net sales decreased 24% in the quarter including 23.8% from decreased unit volume and 0.2% from lower prices.

The company’s orthopedics net sales of $0.9 billion decreased 29.9% in the quarter and 29.3% in constant currency. Organic net sales decreased 29.3% in the quarter including 28.1% from decreased unit volume and 1.2% from lower prices. 

“Our second-quarter sales declined organically by 24%, reflecting the impacts of COVID-19 across all geographies and the majority of our product lines,” Kevin Lobo, Stryker and CEO said according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the earnings call.

Lobo added, “The results reflect progressive improvement in overall sales through the quarter but do vary by region. The sequential improvement can be tied to the initial cancellation and subsequent gradual return elective procedures during the quarter.”

The company said because of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19,  it would not give guidance for next year. 

Late last year, Stryker announced it would acquire Wright Medical for about $4 billion. During the earnings call, Lobo said that this won’t be the last acquisition - but look for smaller tuck-in deals in the near future.

“We're taking on a lot of depths with this Wright Medical acquisition, and so, part of our commitment with cash is going to be to pay down some of the debt, but it won't be exclusively and we've [said] that we will continue to stay active on M&A, but it will be obviously smaller tuck-in type of deals for the near-term,” Lobo said according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the call.

 

Could Technology Advance the Future of Endoscopic Procedures?

Image courtesy of ScoutCam ScoutCam offers micro-CMOS sensor cameras for medical and industrial applications.
ScoutCam offers micro-CMOS sensor cameras for medical and industrial applications.

In order to fully understand how technology could transform endoscopy and why the space needs innovation, we must start from the beginning of the use of endoscopes.

The History of Endoscopes

Philipp Bozzini of Mainz, Germany, created in 1806 the first internally illuminated device used to inspect the interior of the human body, according to archives from the American College of Surgeons. The device was made out of a tube, with various attachments, that could be safely inserted into a body cavity, it was explained. A candle and angled mirrors inside the device carried light into a human cavity, such as the larynx, the female urethra, and the rectum, allowing the physician to see inside. 

The primary goal of an endoscope is to carry light from outside the body into a body cavity. The reflected light, which offers the image of the patient’s body, is then carried back up to the physician’s eyepiece, or into a camera that can display the image on a TV monitor or and optical channel.  

Today, “most modern endoscopes aren't limited to [just] piping light in and out of a patient's body,” according to Explain that Stuff. They can also be used to carry out small surgical operations and other minor, medical procedures through a separate, working channel built into the endoscope.

Typically, a third and separate channel built into an endoscope allows water irrigation at the distal tip of the endoscope to improve visualization. 

Over time, as endoscopes continued to evolve, improvements were made in light sources and optical lenses. Cameras were placed at the distal tip of the endoscope, with the image carried along an electrical cable to outside the body in some endoscopes, replacing the need for fiber-optics, and allowing for smaller and more flexible endoscopes.

Developers can already envision how they see the endoscope transforming—they just need the tools to get there.

Image courtesy of ScoutCamScoutCam offers micro-CMOS sensor cameras for medical and industrial applications.

Above: Micro-CMOS sensor cameras start from 1.2mm and go up to 3mm.

 

What’s Next for Endoscopes

As the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland told Alice (in so many words), first tell me where you want to go so that I may tell you which road to take.

Ideally, endoscopes should become cheaper, smaller, and more flexible, with larger working channels, and ideally be single-use endoscopes to prevent cross-contamination that can occur with multiple-use endoscopes.

These goals may be achieved by:

  1. Using inexpensive high-resolution/definition single-use micro cameras.
  2. Unifying the optical channel with the irrigation channel by allowing water to flow in and around the optical components.

Through such technology, endoscopes could either become smaller and more flexible or alternatively allow enlargement of the working channel. This would allow for more surgical procedures to be carried out in a minimally invasive way, reducing the number of open surgery procedures performed today. 

The importance of single-use endoscopes was recently recognized by the U.S. FDA. The agency recently explained that it "believes the best solution to reducing the risk of disease transmission by duodenoscopes is through innovative device designs that make reprocessing easier, more effective, or unnecessary. For example, duodenoscopes that incorporate disposable components can facilitate cleaning, reduce contamination and reduce disease transmission following reprocessing. Disposable designs may reduce between-patient duodenoscope contamination by half as compared to reusable, or fixed endcaps."

For instance, single-use duodenoscopes can be developed for bile duct procedures, and they should be implemented for endoscopies in other body cavities, especially those cavities that are sterile and more susceptible to infections such as the urinary tract, brain, spinal cord, and more. 

Additionally, other goals that should be taken into consideration include improved optical systems and use of computerized vision and machine learning to help physicians avoid missing lesions.

As both endoscopes and FDA regulations continue to evolve, the three goals listed above seem to be the most urgent and easily achievable today. 

4 Deals Stopped by COVID-19 and 4 That Kept Going Despite the Virus

Sometimes deals close. Sometimes they go south and get canceled. MD+DI is looking at how the novel coronavirus has impacted deals during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, here are five deals that were successful and five deals that didn’t turn out so well.

(Editor’s Note: When we say deals, we’re including more than just M&A. We’re also including financings too!)

Dexcom No Longer Sharing Timeline for G7 Trial

Image by freshidea - Adobe Stock Dexcom

Dexcom patients won't have access to G7, the latest version of the company's popular continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) sensor, in 2020.

It's unclear when the anticipated device will reach the market, however, because Dexcom has decided not to disclose details around the timing of the U.S. pivotal trial, regulatory filing, or launch.

As MD+DI reported in April, Dexcom CEO Kevin Sayer said the timing of the pivotal trial for the G7 sensor would be delayed at least six months because most clinical sites had paused new trials to focus on COVID-19. Sayer's comments this week during the company's second-quarter earnings call suggested that progress is being made, however, the company is keeping the projected timing low key.

"In this competitive world, we have no interest in sharing our playbook with the entire industry," Sayer said, according to Seeking Alpha transcripts of Tuesday's call. "There will not be a limited launch of G7 in 2020. Such a launch would not provide a meaningful financial impact and rushing to accommodate such a launch would ultimately delay our long-term plans."

Sayer also said that some G7 manufacturing scale activities have been delayed because some of the company's vendors had shut down for meaningful periods of time. On a more positive note, Dexcom has its first fully automated G7 manufacturing line up in San Diego, CA, with additional G7 automation equipment arriving at regularly there as well as the company's Mesa, CA plant and at third-party contract manufacturing sites.

Dexcom also has the design of the hardware sensor and electronics locked in, Sayer said, and the G7 algorithm is complete. The company also made use of its extra time by adding some "great enhancements" to the system, the CEO noted.

It also sounds as though the G7 will be in pivotal trials soon. Sayer said the company is in the process of finalizing clinical sites and timing for pivotal studies both in the United States and abroad.

As for the eventual product launch, Dexcom still plans to be fully ready for a G7 conversion when that time comes, and Sayer reiterated that a very small amount of G6 equipment can be used for G7.

If the CEO's enthusiasm around the product is any indication, G7 will be worth the wait.

"The groups working on this project are hitting on all cylinders," Sayer said. "And there is nothing more exciting at Dexcom than the sense of urgency related to a platform change like this that's such a monumental effort. We are redoing everything that we do now to bring this incredible product to market."

He also made a point to say that G7 is not the only thing in the Dexcom pipeline.

"We're spending numerous hours talking about G8, 9, and 10, and whatever else comes in the future, but we're also making sure we don't ignore G6," Sayer said. "We have numerous product improvements and patient experience improvements with G6 that will be out over the next couple of years. We don't ever sit still."

Boston Scientific Reports Encouraging Sales Trends in July

Image by Rasi - Adobe Stock Boston Scientific

Boston Scientific was one of the first medical device companies to cut pay and reduce weekly hours of some employees to offset the financial impact of COVID-19. Those cost-cutting measures apparently paid off because the company now expects to return to growth in the fourth quarter.

"While July has seen flare ups of COVID-related challenges in certain regions, we’re very encouraged by the strengthening trends we’ve seen in July versus those in June," CEO Mike Mahoney said during the company's second-quarter earnings call, according to Seeking Alpha transcripts.

While COVID-19 did impact procedure volumes significantly in the first half of the year across the medical device industry, Mahoney said Boston Scientific has a compelling global pipeline and several on-going launches and recent approvals (more on that below) that are helping lead the company's recovery. He also touted the company's overall favorable mix of high acuity and outpatient care products.

The Marlborough, MA-based company's second-quarter earnings report and management commentary regarding the second half of 2020 won a vote of confidence from industry analysts.

"While we admit there remains uncertainty around COVID case volumes, procedure recovery, patient hesitancy, and the referral channel, our revenue forecasts reflect this commentary," said Marie Thibault, a medtech analyst at BTIG and a former managing editor at MD+DI.

Thibault noted that BTIG's forecast for Boston Scientific is a 10.6% drop in third-quarter revenue (compared to third-quarter 2019 revenue) and a 2.5% growth in fourth-quarter revenue year-over-year.

A report from Mike Matson, a medtech analyst at Needham & Co., carries a similarly optimistic tone.

"While increasing COVID-19 case counts in some regions pose a risk to the improving trends, we expect the recovery to continue through 2H20," Matson said. "Despite some near-term uncertainty due to COVID-19, we believe that [Boston Scientific's] pipeline, mix of procedures, and balance sheet positions it well as the pandemic eases."

Boston Scientific touts an active product pipeline

Matson said Boston Scientific has a robust cadence of new product launches expected across the company's portfolio in the second half of this year. He mentioned several products in particular, including:

  • Boston Scientific snagged FDA clearance in December 2019 to sell its Exalt-D single-use duodenoscope in the United States to provide visualization and access to the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract to treat bile duct disorders and other upper GI problems. The Exalt-D was the first fully disposable duodenoscope to reach the market. Mahoney said the Exalt-D launch was slow due to COVID impacts in the second quarter, however, he said the company is seeing increased interest as recovery from the pandemic improves. In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid granted a transitional path through payment for single use endoscopes, including the Exalt-D, which went into effect on July 1. That fact that infection prevention will be such a huge emphasis in a post-COVID world could be viewed as an added bonus of the new device.
  • SpyGlass Discover is a scope that is created specifically for the surgeon call point and is designed to enable a single-stage approach to treating bile ducts, Mahoney said. The device is currently in a limited market release in both Europe and the United States with a full launch planned in the second half of 2020.
  • Mahoney noted that the company is in a limited market release of Polarx, a second-generation single shot cryoablation catheter. Boston Scientific expects growth to accelerate in Europe as the company moves toward a full launch of the device in the second half 2020.
  • FDA cleared the Lux-Dx implantable cardiac monitor at the end of June. Mahoney said the device offers a seamless patient interface and back-end monitoring as well as the ability to be programmed remotely and have event detection settings adjusted without an in-person visit. This too can be seen as a positive development in a post-COVID environment.
  • Watchman FLX Left Atrial Appendage Closure technology is expected to enter a broader U.S. market launch in the fourth quarter after its recent FDA clearance. This device is pictured below, courtesy of Boston Scientific.

Image courtesy of Boston ScientificBoston Scientific Watchman FLX

Struggling with Quality Compliance? This Pilot Study Is for You

Image by Coloures-Pic - Adobe Stock quality compliance

A new pilot program, a spinoff of the existing Case for Quality Program, is now accepting applications from medical device manufacturers who need help with quality compliance.

Launched in July, the new Accelerate Sustainable Capability (ASC) pilot study is intended to help manufacturers who have difficulty achieving and sustaining regulatory compliance receive insight to help them improve product quality and safety; reach quality compliance more efficiently; structure their systems for continuous quality improvement.

Manufacturers interested in participating in the ASC pilot study can apply here through the Medical Device Innovation Consortium (MDIC), a  public-private partnership that works with government and industry stakeholders to improve patient access to innovative medical technologies. The application period will be open until nine sites have been approved for participation.

MDIC said the goal is to test a methodology for providing systemic improvement to enable FDA 483 and/or advisory actions to be closed faster and more sustainably while, at the same time, ensuring objective metrics and residual risk assessments are in place to provide the agency with oversight of product quality throughout the process.

Benefits of participating in the ASC pilot study

MDIC will cover the costs of the Capability Maturity Model Integration appraisal and other activities conducted under the pilot. This includes the development of an action plan that is agreed upon with FDA, and that is intended to address any FDA inspectional observations, concerns communicated in FDA advisory actions, CMMI appraisal gaps, and residual risk assessment concerns.

During the pilot study, FDA intends to forgo planned routine inspections for participating manufacturers. However, the agency said it will continue to conduct “for cause” inspections of such manufacturers as necessary and appropriate. Participants will have the opportunity to complete the improvements to product quality and safety as specified on their action plan.

Additionally, the participating manufacturer may request a Certificate for Foreign Governments, if needed.

Image by Blue Planet Studio - Adobe Stockquality compliance

Who should apply for the quality compliance pilot study?

Any medical device manufacturer that wants help in achieving and sustaining quality compliance is encouraged to apply, MDIC noted.

MDIC said these manufacturers must have an established Quality Management System that is in accordance with 21 CFR Part 820.

Interested manufacturers will be considered on a first-come, first-served basis with a preference for manufacturers that meet these test case scenarios:

  • Two (or more) voluntary self-reporting manufacturers: Manufacturers of any size that self-identify major deficiencies with quality compliance as defined in the Compliance Program 7382.845
  • Two (or more) manufacturers that received an FDA 483 during a recent inspection: Manufacturers of any size that have major deficiencies with quality compliance as defined in the Compliance Program 7382.845 observed in inspection but with no advisory action yet issued by FDA.
  • Two (or more) manufacturers for whom FDA has issued an advisory action: Manufacturers of any size with an open warning letter or untitled letter from FDA, or manufacturers with whom FDA has requested a regulatory meeting as defined in chapter 4 and 10 of the Regulatory Procedures Manual.

The pilot will also consider a mix of domestic and foreign manufacturers when possible. MDIC said it seeks participation from a variety of companies and product types (such as Class III, II, I, diagnostics, disposables, and implants).

There is no fee to apply and manufacturers should expect to be notified of their application's status within one to two weeks. Companies wanting more information about the study may contact Alan Baumel, director of MDIC's Case for Quality Program at abaumel@mdic.org.

Thrive Brings in Another Large Financing Round

hafakot -stock.adobe.com IMG_Jul292020at105028AM.jpg

Large financing rounds are becoming synonymous with Thrive Earlier Detection Corp. The liquid biopsy specialist raised $257 million in a series B round topping the $110 million it raised in its series A round.  

Thrive will use the proceeds to help develop its CancerSeek blood test. The Cambridge, MA-based company wants to incorporate the test into routine medical care and detect more cancers at earlier stages when they can be more effectively treated and, in many cases, cured.

All of Thrive’s series A investors returned to participate in the Series B financing. The round was led by Casdin Capital and Section 32, with participation from new investors Bain Capital Life Sciences, Brown Advisory, Driehaus Capital Management, Intermountain Ventures, Janus Henderson Investors, Lux Capital, Moore Strategic Ventures, Perceptive Advisors, Rock Springs Capital, Sands Capital, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., and other undisclosed investors. 

Thrive also said that Eli Casdin has been appointed to its board.

“Since our founding in 2019, Thrive has continued to make tremendous progress in our pursuit towards changing the face of cancer,” said David Daly, CEO of Thrive, in a release. “In April, we published data from the first-ever prospective and interventional study of a multi-cancer screening test in an asymptomatic population. Our blood test more than doubled the number of cancers first detected by screening, enabling better outcomes and, in some cases, a potential cure for these patients. With this financing, we are well-positioned to advance our test into a robust registrational trial and continue to work closely with key stakeholders to remove barriers to ensure timely access, including future reimbursement for CancerSEEK.”

Typically, liquid biopsy companies raise significant financing rounds to help support the large clinical trials needed to evaluate their tests.  Recall, Grail raised about $100 million in its series A round in 2016.

Guardant Health pulled in about $360 million in a financing round in 2017. (Editors Note: The Redwood City, CA-based company became public in 2018.)  

Thrive's Solution

CancerSEEK has received Breakthrough Device designation from FDA for the detection of genetic mutations and proteins associated with pancreatic and ovarian cancers, two of the deadliest cancer types. The test interrogates genomic mutations in circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and cancer-associated protein markers in plasma to identify abnormalities that are common across multiple cancers.

In a retrospective study of multiple cancer types published in Science in 2018, CancerSEEK was shown to perform with greater than 99% specificity and with sensitivities ranging from 69% to 98% for the detection of five cancer types – ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreas and esophageal – for which there are no screening tests available for average-risk individuals.

A Tale of Two Pandemics: How Companies Are Succeeding—or Struggling—with Work-at-Home Teams

Image by PagDev from Pixabay pandemic work from home

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. While no one would call 2020 the best of times, there are dramatic differences in how hard companies have been hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some companies have struggled along, frantically trying to adjust to make work from home a reality. Others have made the switch with relatively little interruption in productivity and day-to-day business functions.

This divide between companies isn’t random. There are some marked differences between companies that have made the transition smoothly and those that haven’t. At our company in particular, we had a fairly seamless transition to work from home given enhanced communication tools, preparation, and personalization. Here are some considerations for you and your company to make in terms of technology, productivity, and employee engagement.

Technology

The ability to adjust in drastic situations, such as a pandemic, is related to how well a company prepares during the best of times. As an ISO-certified organization, we’ve long had a disaster recovery plan in place. Our employees have also enjoyed the chance to work from home once or twice a week long before the pandemic. Because we had a work-from-home program, the technology was in place for employees to securely access the network from home. Equally important was the trust that existed between employees and their managers. That trust enabled employees to work from home without managers feeling like they needed a way to monitor them. While our transition hasn’t been easy in other ways, it was fairly seamless when it comes to technology.

If things have been difficult for prepared companies, they’re much worse for unprepared ones. Companies that weren’t prepared were scrambling to figure out how to connect their employees while working from home. Without cloud-based software to store documents and manage tasks, communication is left up to email and phone calls. And considering how misused “Reply All” is, email isn’t always the best way to ensure everyone’s on the same page. A centralized system that everyone can access provides complete visibility and clear communication between teammates. Without that, version control, edits to a document, and tracking feedback are all guesswork.

This brings up the question of how secure your work-from-home policy is. Do you use two-factor authentication? Are employees trained on detecting phishing emails? Ransomware attacks are on the rise, and yet some companies have taken security shortcuts while making this work-from-home transition. When a company is prepared for remote work, employees do not have to find shortcuts and workarounds to accomplish their tasks. For example, if employees don’t have company laptops to take into their homes, a business may allow them to use personal devices. This may seem reasonable if work-from-home is meant to be temporary, but not knowing the security of an employee’s private laptop puts a company at risk.

Productivity

People talk at the office. A lot. At their desks, in the elevator, in the hallways, in the breakroom, in the bathroom, employees socialize at the office. There’s a big difference between companies that encourage this and ones that don’t. And that difference is all the more apparent during the pandemic. Militaristic management might keep employees on task, but employees are happier and more productive when Big Brother isn’t constantly peeking over their shoulders. At MasterControl, instead of monitoring our employees, we’ve created an environment that fosters trust between employees and management. While this does result in a certain amount of non-work activities, it ultimately makes our employees more productive, not less. And that applies regardless of whether our employees are at home or working from the office. The social aspect of work shouldn’t be ignored in the move to work from home. Since employees can no longer hold impromptu conversations, we had to find other ways to bring a personal touch to work.

One of the ways we did this was through an instant-messaging platform. Employees are just as likely to be sharing memes as discussing their latest project. And we’re okay with that. We know it helps them connect and those connections are part of what has built our great company culture. In our executive team meetings, we intentionally set aside time to talk about what’s happening in our lives on a personal level. Taking the time to share and listen to each other builds our relationships and mimics some of the in-person interactions we’re no longer having.

Conversely, a lack of trust doesn’t foster loyalty. This puts a business at greater risk when employees have to switch to working from home. If employees are driven by fear, productivity can plummet in a work-from-home environment. Even though it takes time to build trust between a company and its employees, it’s never too late to start. Companies can begin by trying to engage their employees and to help them be self-motivated. One of the ways to do this is communication. This includes official, business-focused communication and the above-mentioned more casual communication. When employees know what’s going on, what’s expected of them, and are given a little leeway, they’re more productive because they’re more engaged.

Employee Engagement

The most engaging forms of communication are similar to in-person conversations. In a work from home environment, video calls and instant messaging are the best tools. Video calls provide face-to-face communication, and instant messaging provides back-and-forth conversations that are similar in nature to what would happen in the office. There’s always email, but an instant-messaging platform enables faster communication and issue resolution. One of the things we realized during the transition to work from home is that we had several different instant-messaging platforms used across different teams. We had to pick one and make it the company’s official tool. This ensured we had solid cross-departmental communication. Instant messaging also lets employees connect on a personal level, which leads me to my next point.

Communication between coworkers isn’t just essential to keep your business going. Those impromptu conversations previously mentioned are just as important to morale as they are to business. One of the side effects of employees working from home is they don’t interact with each other as they usually do. The personal conversations tend to get lost. Social connections in the workplace help employees be successful. Conversely, removing social connections leads to employees becoming depressed and despondent.

At MasterControl, we foster these relationships with fitness clubs, employee events, and team building activities. Our snack program is specifically designed to encourage employees to visit other floors and interact with employees that they wouldn’t normally run in to. The methods have changed, but we still want our employees interacting in both social and professional settings. Some teams have held virtual after-work social hours and others use online tools to play games together. Anything that lets your team members connect in a personal way will be beneficial.

Image courtesy of MasterControlMasterControl during the Pandemic

Above: Each conference room has indicators to show where employees need to sit to maintain a 6-feet distance.

 

Looking Forward after the Pandemic

If a company is going through the worst of times now, that doesn’t mean it can’t take steps to better prepare for the future. Companies that had to put together a work-from-home policy while switching everyone over can still refine that policy. They can work on building trust between the employees and their managers and implement practices to reflect that concern. Employees need to know they won’t be penalized for working from home when they’re sick.

For companies that were prepared, the future won’t see us heading back to the same workspace we left. Social distancing will change floorplans, conference rooms, and company-wide meetings. It’s entirely possible that employees will never switch back to working five days in the office. And that can be a good thing. Using tools for video calls or instant messaging can streamline work, even when speaking in person is possible. However, in-person interactions are still vital for building and strengthening relationships.

Regardless of which camp your company falls into, there’s preparation to do. Things are slowly changing, and the economy is reopening, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic has been resolved. The severity of the pandemic will likely continue to ebb and flow, making adaptability and planning important as we go into the future.

3DP Material Mimics Real Human Tissue for Spinal Repair

biologicalmaterials_0.png

Researchers are currently able to print a range of biological tissues, but it has been challenging to create synthetic replacements that truly match the properties and behaviors of real human tissue.

Now a team at University of Colorado (CU) Denver has made a breakthrough in this endeavor using materials called liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) to create devices that mimic cartilage and other biological tissues.

The research, led by CU Denver mechanical engineering professor Chris Yakacki, was an extension of work with LCEs that the team—including researchers from Southern University of Science and Technology in China—had already done.

In fact, researchers didn’t set out with the idea to create biological materials, Yakacki told Design News. “We didn’t have the mindset to print cartilage initially,” he said.

However, the more the team studied LCEs, “the more we realized how similar its behavior was to natural tissues, such as cartilage or the intervertebral discs,” Yakacki told us.

Using LCEs, researchers achieved digital light processing (DLP) 3D printing of high-resolution porous lattice structures for devices that can behave very similarly to cartilage and other biological tissues.

Integral Process

DLP plays a key role in achieving the results of the research, Nick Traugutt, a CU Denver PhD student and one of the researchers on the project, told Design News.

“With this technique, we achieved incredible, high-resolution lattice structures that could not manufactured any other way,” he told us. “This was significant because between the chemistry of our LCE and the lattice structures we can DLP print, we have numerous different ways to precisely tune across length scales the viscoelasticity and mechanical properties of our devices.”

Indeed, while LCEs—which incorporate liquid crystal molecules into the polymer chains of a soft rubbery material—are incredibly useful materials, they are notoriously difficult to synthesize and manipulate. Until now, most researchers could create either large objects with minimal detail or high detail in practically microscopic structures.

This is why DLP played a particularly key role in the results of the researchers’ work. The team developed a honey-like LC resin that cures when hit with ultraviolet light. This forms new bonds in a succession of thin photopolymer layers.

The result of the cured material is  a soft, strong, and compliant elastomer that can be printed in lattice structures—levels of patterning akin to a honeycomb—that begin to mimic the behavior of cartilage, Traugutt told us.

CU Denverbiologicalmaterials.jpg

A DLP-printed liquid crystal elastomer concept device of a spinal cage with a porous lattice architecture. The device was printed using new materials and a process developed by researchers at University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver), working with collaborators from China.

“Creating soft materials that absorb energy and are rate dependent has been a longstanding challenge,” he told Design News. “Nature has done a great job within our bodies, but as materials scientists we often like to be inspired by nature.”

The Path Ahead

Researchers published a report in its findings in the journal Advanced Materials.

The group printed several structures from the material, including a tiny, detailed lotus flower and a prototype of a spinal fusion cage. These experiments demonstrated that the combination of the resin and printing process also led to 12 times greater rate-dependence and up to 27 times greater strain–energy dissipation compared to those printed from a commercially available photocurable elastomer resin, researchers found.

Researchers plan to continue their work to explore how they can develop orthopedic devices made from LCEs, Traugutt told Design News.

“If we can mimic tissue behavior, we want to then try to replace damaged tissues as a result of injury or aging,” he said.

Other applications for the work include the design of helmets that can soften the blow of impact and help avoid concussions in contact sports, Traugutt added.

“Overall, we’re looking at how these energy-absorbing materials can be used to improve human health both inside and outside of the body,” he told us.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.