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Polymer Science and Engineering: The Shifting Research Frontiers
Advances in any technology depend critically on research. Currently, there is a paucity of fundamental information on interactions between synthetic materials and the biological medium, partly because of the complex mechanisms involved and the fact that the human body is a most hostile environment. Hence, there is a need for research that will generate the fundamental information necessary to design materials that will be compatible with human tissue and perform the required functions. In particular, there is a need for better understanding of surface interactions and relationships between physical properties of a polymer and biological events, such as clot formation in blood.
A persuasive argument can be made that biomaterials development is poised for a revolutionary change. For quite some time, an important objective of biomaterials research has been a search for "inert" materials that elicit minimal tissue response. But nothing about organisms is static. As the processes of cellular signaling and differentiation become more thoroughly understood, it is likely that new polymers will be engineered to manipulate these processes in positive, productive ways. The emerging science of tissue engineering, for example, will depend directly on the development of new biologically active polymeric matrices to guide the controlled generation (or regeneration) of skin, cartilage, liver, and neuronal tissue. Enzymes, semisynthetic enzymes, and genetic engineering provide a revolutionary opportunity in the production of novel materials for medical uses. The challenges are great; the rewards are greater. The potential economic and societal impact of polymers designed for use in health care, biotechnology, and agriculture is enormous. Almost everyone is already in contact with biomaterials. Hence, polymers are positioned to play a vital role in improving the quality of life, enhancing longevity, and reducing the cost of health care.
Polymers in Health Applications
Implants and Medical Devices
Development of medical implants has been limited by many factors. The synthetic nondegradable materials needed in such products as orthopedic joints, heart valves, vascular prostheses, heart pacemakers, neurostimulators, and ophthalmic and cochlear implants must meet many technical requirements, including being stable and biocompatible in the host environment for moderate to long lifetimes. However, the fact that most of the polymers currently used in implants were not initially designed for medical use means that those polymers may not meet such requirements. This carries with it inherent risks, such as those dramatically brought to light in the course of recent litigation concerning silicone breast implants. Also, toxic breakdown products have been reported for certain polyurethanes under consideration for an artificial heart pump design. Development of new techniques for screening and testing the biological response of