26 February 2018

Biomedical materials in the period of scarcity

by Akshay Kakar, Dr Elammaran Jayamani and Muhammad Khusairy bin Bakri

Accidents happen. No matter how safe our workplace is, accidents can happen at any time and anywhere and it is not possible to prevent these mishaps from occurring. Fortunately, most of the accidents are not fatal or have high risks, thus leaving us with mainly minor injuries.

Among the people who are prone to accidents or injuries are sportsmen, labourers and those living in rural areas as they work physically harder using most of their body parts such as hands and legs, therefore, making them more vulnerable to any sort of injuries.

Which part of our body do you think is most injury-prone? Head, legs or backbones? None of them are. In fact, fingers are the most susceptible to injury, followed by fractured arms. According to many doctors and scientists, if finger injuries and fractures are tended to immediately, they can heal quickly and completely. Delay in medical attention for as less as two hours can create complications in the situation.

Today, the most popular material parts used to cure such injuries include glass fibre, alloys and Plaster of Paris (PoP). PoP is a type of gypsum plaster made of a fine white powder which hardens when moistened and allowed to dry. It is an excellent medium for casting moulds and commonly used in medicine, for example, to make plaster casts to immobilise broken bones while they heal.

Most of the alloy parts are accessible in hospitals for first-aid medics and selected few coaches on the training fields. However, it is hardly available or in very limited quantities in rural areas which make them scarce in the period of emergency. These supports or splints, as referred to by the doctors, are made using rare expensive metals such as inorganically produced titanium alloys due to its strength. Surprisingly, most patients do not know that it is the very strength of these alloys that sometimes curbs the regrowth and re-joining of the broken bones.

Metals are becoming more expensive because its resources are depleting. This has pushed us to explore alternative solutions. Glass fibre seemed like a good alternative and has become very popular of late because of its cheaper and aesthetic value. But the downside is glass fibre is inorganic and causes skin irritation. Casts made of glass fibre are packed inside plastic wrappers to avoid skin irritation. However, plastics tend to wear off overtime and when this cast gets in contact with our skin, it also causes itchiness.

Few years ago, PoP was very popular and is now still used in certain treatments. It is becoming less popular because PoP is difficult to prepare, troublesome to apply and exhausting for the patient to keep it intact. While wearing PoP, sweat and dead cells from the skin get trapped, further promoting bacteria growth. This makes the skin itch and in some cases can also cause skin disease.

Ultimately, we need a material that is cheap, organic, strong and consumable to provide the ideal support for healing injured bones and tendons. A brand new material is now being engineered that is organic unlike the glass fibre, cheaper than PoP, almost as strong as the alloys and is edible! Its strength is very unique as it promotes re-joining of bones rather than restraining it because of its controlled elasticity.

This might shock you, but unlike alloys, this will not cause an electric shock. This is especially valuable for those living on pacemakers as the electric shock can be highly fatal. So why spend more when you can get better value with cheaper, renewable and sustainable solution?

Akshay Kakar and Muhammad Khusairy bin Bakri are PhD students (Higher Degree Researcher) and Dr Elammaran Jayamani is a senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. Their research looks into environmentally friendly, biodegradable and bio-sustainable materials. They can be reached via email at akakar@swinburne.edu.my, mbakri@swinburne.edu.my or ejayamani@swinburne.edu.my.