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The life-changing possibilities for biomedical textiles

Trans-disciplinary approaches, new materials and processes make breakthroughs possible.

Features | May 22, 2023 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar

Muh Amdadul Hoque, working in the Fang Research Group, NC State, is developing woven fabric actuators driven by ultrafine pneumatic fiber actuators (PFAs), which could be used in implantable fabric robots. Photo: Janet Preus.

The pandemic heightened the public’s awareness of textile substrates and elevated the value of textiles in everyone’s eyes, but relatively few know of breakthrough technologies that could transform segments of the medical textiles field. Key attributes of these textiles are their functionality and biocompatibilities, but a range of functionalities may need to be considered, depending on the applications and the need. These may vary from strength and stretchability in the case of sutures, to barrier properties in the case of microbe protection. Because of the various requirements, this field offers enormous opportunities for start-up ecosystems to grow, and it lends itself to the development of life-changing—and even life-saving—products.

Enabling fields and technologies

In recent decades, the push for inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches have resulted in non-invasive medicine administration using textile substrates, such as patches, compatible polymer-based medical implants and PPE with enhanced functionalities. Innovations in material science, such as predictive modeling of airflow using computational fluid dynamics, availability of water-soluble polymers, advanced manufacturing, 3D printing and other methods are enabling the development of biomedical products for use on, as well as in, the human body. 

Electrospun nanofibers. Nanofibers (2D and 3D) are being used to create scaffolds for tissue growth and generation. While electrospinning has been established as a viable technique for developing high-surface substrates, it is now possible to have high productivity, and hence products can be scaled-up.

High efficiency filters and biomedical patches utilize nanofibers to enhance efficacy. Sustainable polymers such as PVA that are water soluble find immediate applications in products that can be used in markets that include human health and environmental protection. Natural products-based PLA films can be extruded and made into products with multiple medical and industrial applications, based on regulatory approvals.

3D printing and polymers. Advances in polymer science and manufacturing techniques like 3D printing are playing significant roles in developing compatible bio implants. “Both resorbable and non-resorbable polymers, depending on the need and the type of medical incidents, can be used for children and adults,” says Dr. Jayanthi Parthasarathy, manager at the 3D Printing and Innovation Laboratory, Dept. of Radiology, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio. Some common polymers that are used are Polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and resorbable materials such as Poly(ε-caprolactone), Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), Polyethylene glycol and Poly(L-lactic acid).

Unlike the need for mass production in fast-fashion products, for the medical sector, patient-specific products are necessary, for which techniques like vacuum plasma surface finishing, 3D printing and customized functional coatings are aptly suited. 

“3D printing helps with precise organic shapes with design freedom,” says Dr. Parthasarathy. “While low-volume production is not a welcome one in commodity production, for the medical implants sector, it is an advantage,” she adds.

Antibacterial coatings. Recent research led by Prof. Qing Cao at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, provides added functionality to medical implants. The implants have a nanostructured coating whose nano-pillar patterns prevent bacterial infections. The nanostructure can also be embedded with sensors that monitor the mechanical strain of the implants providing clues for clinicians on the process of healing. According to the researchers, the coating is basically the nanostructured pattern using a mechanical process that can serve as an alternate for metal-based approaches. The next phase of medical implants will focus on active devices that can monitor healing and growth (“active implants”).

Natural ingredients. Tissue scaffolds using natural substrates involving natural biocides are getting attention. Research carried out by Dr. Uday Turaga at Texas Tech University has focused on developing biomaterial-based nanofiber structures that not only have high surface area, but also help with the growth of cells. Natural biocides (such as honey) help to prevent infections. These combination approaches support efforts to enhance performance of implants and scaffolds.

The next phase

While biomedical implants are patient-specific, life-enhancement and life-saving products, cost still plays a role. But given what’s at stake, safe, biocompatible and functional implants remain the need of the hour for the healthcare sector.

The textiles sector in the recent past has taken keen interest in 3D printing. Although marketing efforts have been geared towards designer and fast-fashion products, its immediate appeal and interest will be in the medical textiles area. In addition, demand will continue for biocompatible and skin-friendly materials—often natural products—in healthcare markets. 

In terms of sustainability, the medical sector has ambitious goals. The U.K.-based National Health Service has set a target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, while targeting 80 percent reduction by 2036 to 2039. 

According to Dr. Parthasarathy, there are many FDA-approved, 3D-printed medical products that are commercially available. Polymers such as PEEK, polycaprolactone, Radiolucent Polyetherketoneketone and dental resins are used. Companies such as Oxford Performance Materials, RTI Surgical, Stratasys, Curiteva and others are pioneers in this field.

The medical textiles sector is highly research-based and hence offers tremendous opportunities for academic research laboratories and SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises) to collaborate and develop new products. The textiles sector can also find funding support from major government agencies, such as the European Commission, National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. These are indeed positives for this market in particular, as funding for regular textile projects is limited and does not enjoy this level of support. 

The industry is also in a position to use the talents of young graduates in textiles and allied fields in R&D, product development and working with regulatory bodies. With this added advantage, medical textiles will continue to be important in supporting diversification and growth in the sector, as well as job creation in the private sector. The Advanced Textiles Association is in a position to serve as a bridge builder between the larger functional textiles industry and the highly research-oriented medical implants sector.

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory and a regular contributor to Textile Technology Source.

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