MedTech Day – from idea to product

Innovations in medical technology

Jun 11, 2015 | CORNELIA ZOGG

Medical technology is an important (and research-intensive) growth market for the Swiss economy.  So it's no surprise that this research area plays a central role at Empa; ten of the 30 research laboratories focus, among other things, on the topics of the development, characterisation and analysis of materials as well as on surface coatings. During the MedTech Day on 20 May 2015, Empa researchers presented the latest discoveries made by their laboratories. 


New development involving a foam that supports the healing of chronic wounds. After it has done its work, the foam is broken down by the body. (Image: KTI, Alessandro Della Bella).

Our society is aging. But with increasing life expectancy the risk that some of our bodily functions begin to fail also increases.  «Nature didn't intend for us to live so long.» With these words Alex Dommann, a member of Empa's management team and head of the Materials meet Life department, opened this year's MedTech Day. Thanks to cutting-edge medical technology, it has become possible to support or even completely restore many bodily functions that cease to work satisfactorily with advancing age, using implanted materials. During the MedTech Day, interested participants from research and industry learned about the state of the art, for example in the area of functional textiles such as bandages and specialised sticking plasters that release well-defined quantities of medication upon exposure to a light pulse, or novel coatings for implants.
Empa researcher Jakob Kübler and his team in the High Performance Ceramics department develop parts for cardiac pacemakers.  Heart attacks are the most common heart condition world-wide; approximately 30% of patients require a pacemaker after a heart attack.  The device is anchored in the heart muscle by means of an electrode. Currently this anchor is made from plastic. When conventional pacemakers are used, a so-called fibrosis often forms around this material – a scar-like proliferation of connective tissue. As a result, the pacemaker expends more energy in transmitting impulses to the heart muscle, and the batteries need to be replaced more frequently.

Improving implants with surface coatings
Ceramic materials have also proven themselves in other areas of medical technology, for example for implants. In this area too, the surface and above all its coating play a crucial role.  Implants – whether in hip joints, dental implants, or intervertebral discs – have various functions.  Depending on the site of application, bone needs to grow onto the implanted material, thus anchoring the material firmly into place. This is true for intervertebral disc implants, for example. Kerstin Thorwarth and her team at the the Nanoscale Materials Science department have developed a coating for a particular type of disc replacement known as cages. These are either made from thermoplastic polymers (polyether ether ketone, or PEEK for short) or from titanium. Both materials have particular advantages. PEEK offers good mechanical properties, while bone more readily grows onto titanium. Thorwarth's team have succeeded in combining the best of both worlds, namely coating PEEK-cages with titanium.
Artificial hip joints require a similar surface coating. The bone should be encouraged to grow onto the anchoring part of the implant, thus fixing it into place in the body. Yet, the actual joint needs to stay mobile, exhibit ideal sliding properties, and prevent the growth of the bone into that part of the implant.  DLC (diamond-like carbon) is an example of such a material, as well as an area of research focus at Empa, mainly in the area of intervertebral disc implants.

A fundamental requirement for foreign (therapeutic) materials is that they are tolerated by the human body, a quality that is known as biocompatibility. Katharina Maniura, director of the Biointerfaces department, investigates, for example, how cells and tissues respond to different innovative implant materials. In this area it is important to investigate the behaviour of each implant material specifically for each new application, she says.  Depending on the site of use, the body's response may be fundamentally different. As «The cellular composition of each tissue is different», explains the scientist. Her team investigates how different cell types respond to material characteristics, in order to develop suitable materials for integration into different tissues.  An additional aim is to avoid complications following implantation – such as inflammation.
The investigation of biofilms on materials is another area of investigation.  Empa researcher Qun Ren investigates bacteria that may from colonies both on implants and on medical devices. Her team has developed a technique for purging medical devices such as endoscopes from bacteria in order to make it safe to reuse them for the next patient.
Following the presentations, representatives of the MedTech sector had the opportunity during a speed-dating session to discuss material development, surface treatment and material characterisation in medical technology with Empa scientists and to ask questions.  A great opportunity to build bridges between research and practice and to familiarise partners from industry with the most recent discoveries and technologies.

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