Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Super Healthy (if not Superhuman) with Plastics

The human imagination is always dreaming up new ways of improving society.  Often, the most popular methods of improvement are the ones that can be applied directly to the individual himself. Take the 1970s television series, “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1974), for example, where an ordinary person is genetically repaired and engineered to be superhuman.  The well-known phrase remembered by the show’s fans is, “We can rebuild him; we have the technology.” More recently, the two popular Iron Man movies feature the rich, self-centered Tony Stark, who uses his techy body suit to fight the forces of evil. 

We may not have any true “Robocops” or “Iron Men” in society today, but we do have technology that helps people survive and thrive beyond their own bodies’ limitations. And this is where plastics come in.
Plastics have contributed to health benefits for more than 40 years. From life-giving blood bags and the plastic tubing and valves that support them to intravenous containers, dialysis equipment, blood glucose monitors, syringes, examination gloves, inhalation masks, artificial limbs and implants – plastics such as vinyl or polyurethane give or extend life!

Medical instruments such as the catheter can be used to free up blockage in an artery or blood vessel.  With heart disease as the leading cause of death in America, as reported by the CDC, catheters remain an important hospital tool and life-saver for many. 
CNET news recently reported on the “total artificial heart” that 43-year old Charles Okeke is fortunate to have after his body rejected a heart transplant. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the SynCardia backpack device that Okeke wears (weighing only 13 pounds) as the first portable technology to support the entire artificial heart.  Plastics’ anti-corrosive properties make this technology possible. According to the manufacturer’s directions for use, the artificial heart  “consists [of] two artificial ventricles, each made of a semi-rigid polyurethane housing with four flexible polyurethane diaphragms separating the blood chamber from the air chamber.”  Other plastics used in the heart’s manufacture are nylon, polyester, polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Another groundbreaking development in medicine: The Journal of the American Chemical Society reports that  plastic particles have been custom made to fight troublesome antigens.  As reported, these particles fight antigens, including “everything from disease-causing viruses and bacteria to the troublesome proteins that cause allergic reactions to plant pollen, house dust, certain foods, poison ivy, bee stings and other substances.”  These tiny pieces of plastic are 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, and mimic the function of antibodies in latching onto antigens.  Thus far, the test has only been successful in animals.  Infected animals injected with the plastic particles survived at a much higher rate than animals not injected. 
So while plastics may not be currently used to make super humans, plastics are being put to use to fight the super villains of society we cannot see, viruses and bacteria.

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