Bionic bones? They’re not just used for Anatomy class anymore. Using a 3D printer, a team at Swansea University in Wales is developing a composite of bio- and petrochemical-based polymers to make synthetic bones in the exact shape a patient requires. One of the key polymers is a biodegradable polymer called polycaprolactone, which is derived from benzene.
And if you want to go the fully synthetic route, chemists have developed an advanced, biocompatible polymer called polyether ether ketone (starts with the petrochemical building blocks toluene and benzene) that is used for reconstructive surgery. Its physical properties surpass titanium and other traditional materials.
There’s far more to these polymer applications than the eyes can see. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have been able to create a “bionic eye” using silver nanoparticles encapsulated in polyacrylate (from propylene) that act as a conductive connector, and also high-performance polymer‐based photodectors based on conductive polymers like PEDOT:PSS (from butene and benzene) and poly-TPD (from benzene) that can convert light into electricity. Even the solvents that enable complete and consistent disbursement of these tiny particles are based on petrochemicals, such as toluene and chlorobenzene. Accomplished within a hemispherical glass dome, the process to create the eye takes just one hour, according to researchers. This development could soon improve people’s eyesight and allow the blind to see.
A similar study in South Korea 3D printed custom eyeballs to fit the patient’s eye socket, and used a biocompatible photopolymer as the base material to finish the eye.
Even skin has skin in the 3D-printing game. The conventional process of engineering skin tissue has drawbacks, including a lack of hair follicles and sweat glands and abnormal or excessive formation of blood cells.
Processes using petrochemical-based materials can help reconstruct the skin’s important anatomical functions. Skin cells can now be mixed with a suitable hydrogel, like gelatin methacrylate (GelMA), N-hydroxysuccinimide (NHS) and 1-ethyl-3-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)-N-carbodiimide (EDC), cross-linked by polyethylene glycol (PEG), and printed in a bioprinter. Under in vitro conditions, that printed skin construct is allowed to mature before being implanted into the defected area of a patient. This is especially useful to heal burn victims.
These advanced hydrogel names may be a mouthful, but they all start with simple petrochemical building blocks. Propylene is used for the methacrylate part of the GelMA, butane is used to make the NHS and ethylene is the starting point for the EDC. Even the PEG cross-linking agent start with the petrochemical building block ethylene.
What these medical advancements promise is a future where it is rare for anyone loses their life while waiting for a transplant. It’s one that will allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and mobility for the disabled. One that won’t just save lives, but for many will provide a new lease on life. Thankfully, it’s no longer just a dream.