New materials and technologies for medicine


Photo: GettyImages/AshleyWiley

Our health care system is currently facing various challenges. The number of people of highly advanced age, who require more intensive medical care, is increasing. Cardio-vascular diseases are more frequent, the reasons often based on a lack of physical activity and an unhealthy, high-fat diet. At the same time, doctors are recording more and more cartilage and bone damage, some of which is caused by accidents, or excessive or incorrectly practised sport.

To meet these challenges, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht is working on a new generation of biomaterials – implants that actively support the reconstruction of tissues, release medication in a controlled manner, and eventually dissolve in the body once their work is done.

Materials used in the body to support the body’s own regeneration or to take over important functions are called biomaterials. Prominent examples are heart valves or support devices for blood vessels: so-called stents. But not all of these implants have to remain in the body permanently. In some cases, screws, pins or plates, used to fix a bone after fracture, have to be surgically removed. The situation is similar in the case of bio-material systems for the release of bioactive substances, such as hormones. Once the site has healed or the active substance has been fully released, the implants are often obsolete and may possibly cause complications.


Focus on polymers and metals

As a remedy, HZG researchers are focusing on an innovative strategy: they are working on implants made from degradable materials that will automatically dissolve once their function is carried out. The Institute area of “Metallic Biomaterials” in Geesthacht is dedicated to the metal magnesium – the most promising candidate for screws and pins that support bones after a fracture and slowly disintegrate after healing.

The Institute of Biomaterial Science in Teltow near Berlin focuses on innovative plastics: so-called polymers. Among others, these include gels that regenerate damaged tissue. Furthermore, polymers are designed that continually release bioactive agents at their designated site of action over weeks or months.

This work is as eclectic as it is challenging – and requires interdisciplinary teams of physicists, biologists, chemists physicians and engineers. The experts often have to realize completely new production technologies for their materials and prototypes. These new materials are then intensively tested. Only in this way their behaviour can
be profoundly understood and realistically modelled.

In parallel, the experts are creating innovative designs for new types of implants. These are tested in extensive test series – initially under conditions corresponding to those in the body, then using cell cultures. Only in the case of promising systems can a pre-clinical study in an animal model take place – a necessary trial run before a new implant can be used in humans.

The development of innovative biomaterials requires complex process chains, which the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht covers to a large extent. From material synthesis through extensive testing and measuring methods up to implant design, everything is under one roof in Geesthacht and in Teltow. Furthermore, there is collaboration
with established partners, particularly from the medical field, to transfer knowledge from fundamental research into practice, the HZG researchers work closely with university hospitals within the framework of Virtual Institutes and joint facilities.