This Is Plastics: The Bionic Person: Healing and Longevity


The Bionic Person: Healing and Longevity

In this installment of the Bionic Person series, learn how plastics further the healing process through dissolvable stitches and other internal products, caring for the wounded and improving health outcomes and lifespans.


Plastics create new opportunities in medicine

Plastics and plastic products have been vital in medicine and the medical profession for decades. Plastics are trusted for their protective qualities, tensile strength, and relative ease of use. Plastics revolutionized the medical field with the advent of Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a versatile plastic patented in 1913 which quickly replaced the outdated glass containers used widely in medicine and pharmacology. Plastics now serve as the building block for lifesaving products like sterile medical packaging, syringes, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Plastics have also found a home in many lifesaving applications used in hospitals and implanted inside human beings, replacing more fragile and higher-cost materials with a cheaper and more readily sourced alternative with enumerable benefits. 

Plastics innovation in peacetime and wartime benefit society

Some of the most critical modern advances like the internet and the GPS owe their genesis to military necessity. Plastic innovations are no different. In a 2012 study examining the future of combat casualty care, the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research found that up to 90% of survivable deaths on the battlefield are due to uncontrolled bleeding. Most battlefield casualties died of their injuries before ever reaching a surgeon. To remedy this, the U.S. Army designed a new kind of bandage made from polystyrene and rubber that can absorb as much as 800% percent of its weight in liquid, providing a crucial barrier that slows the rate of blood loss and increases the chances of survival until critical care can be administered. The flexibility and strength of the plastic material are crucial benefits for this lifesaving application. Such advances are essential to saving lives on and off the battlefield. 

When wound care requires the use of sutures, plastics and polymers provide a versatile suite of options that can deliver the best outcome depending on the patient’s needs. Sutures used to close wounds can be made of absorbable and nonabsorbable plastic-derived materials. One common material used in nonabsorbable sutures is polypropylene. Polypropylene sutures provide permanent wound support and are the preferred choice depending on wound size and location and are widely available around the world. Absorbable suture options like polydioxanone (PDS II) made from polyester is one of the longest-lasting options and retains their tensile strength for longer, making them useful for wounds that require long-term care. The material is reabsorbed and provides additional benefits of limiting scars spreading.

Plastics extends the quality of life for aging communities

In the baby-boom generation, or those born between 1946 through 1964, there is an increased need for prosthetics and joint replacement surgeries to enable mobility for longer than their parents. Data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates that more than 450,000 total hip replacements annually are performed in the United States. One of the most significant advances in joint replacement implants has been the development of newer polyethylene that is strengthened through a process of cross-linking. Cross-linked polyethylene is high-density material made by changing the molecular structure of plastic to provide even more versatile material with up to five times the tensile strength. The more robust plastic is more durable than conventional polyethylene and eliminated many of the issues caused by other materials such as metal-on-metal implants that were later recalled from the market due to adverse reactions.

Plastics hold the promise to a future of medical advances that will allow each generation to outlive the next. In the not-too-distant future, human beings will likely require mobility aids and implants during older age, and there is currently no material more aptly suited for the task than the versatile plastics and polymers made possible by science. 

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