The medical implant devices of tomorrow will not only employ new production methods such as 3D printing but will also utilize new materials, for example, seaweed. Long heralded as an under-appreciated source of food, seaweed is now being examined for its potential as a key ingredient for medical implant devices. Though still far from a reality, visionaries see a future industry in seaweed-based gels as an environmentally friendly, cheap, and effective material for 3D printed medical implant devices.
The term “seaweed” may refer to a number of different species of algae, or aquatic plants lacking the familiar stems, leaves, and other vascular tissues of familiar terrestrial plants. While some species of algae may live as single celled organisms, the more recognizable “seaweeds” may be composed of ribbon-like fronds that measure several feet long. Seaweeds such as the red algae Porphyra (the primary ingredient in nori) are commonly farmed and eaten in China and Japan. Other species are eaten in Iceland and the British Isles. Seaweed has been called a “super food” because it is high in vitamins and minerals while low in cholesterol and saturated fat.
Aside from being a food source, seaweed extracts are now being considered as a potential key element for medical implant devices. One extract from brown seaweed, alginate, has been successfully used to help in the re-growth of injured teeth and bone tissue. Evidence suggests that scaffolding created from alginate extracts reduces swelling and enhances protein adsorption and biomineralization. Finally, alginate also has antibiotic properties that would reduce the risk of infections caused by the surgical implantation procedure.
Another class of important seaweed derived extracts are the gelling substances known as ulvans. Ulvans have been investigated for a number of different bioactive properties, including its role as a cell carrier to help orthopedic surgeons deliver living cell implants and growth factors straight to a targeted site. Ulvans also have the ability to modify the adhesion and proliferation phases of epithelial cells in the colon.
In addition to producing useful products for 3D printed medical implant devices, seaweed is also renewable and producing it is environmentally friendly. Seaweeds take up waste and excessive nutrients from aquaculture. They also create oxygen-rich environments; provide sheltered living spaces for other marine life, and work against ocean acidification created from pollution.
Though incorporating seaweed extracts into 3D printed mainstream medical implant devices is still a ways in the future, this is an industry that organizations such as the Australian company Venus Shell Systems Pty Ltd and DyanSig are actively exploring. Already DynaSig’s BioPen is capable of “drawing” cells directly onto a wound site using technology similar to 3D printing and gelling substances such as alginate as key components. The device is still in preparation for clinical trial, but in the event that this product comes to market, demand for alginate and perhaps other seaweed based extracts will surely increase.
By Sarah Takushi