Medical Plastics News is my go-to source for new information about the contributions of plastics and plastics technology to the field of medicine. This month, that publication published a story describing a new advance that has revolutionized the field of medical implants in the past years.

In particular, the article, titled “How custom made implants have the potential to improve surgical procedures”, described how 3d printing and modern plastics molding technology has revolutionized the field of cranioplasty, a surgical term describing procedures that repair skull injuries and deformities.

Cranioplasty is typically conducted to repair damage to the skull after an accident, or, more rarely, to correct birth defects. Cranioplasty is often an essential part of helping people who have suffered from head injuries recover and live normal lives.

Cranial implants, which often replace bone which has been damaged or destroyed, must be both strong and malleable. Since the procedure became common following the second world war, a variety of materials have been used, each improving on the previous. The state of the art material was originally metal alloys, which were replaced by acrylic materials developed for dentistry. More recently, plastics have started to become the material of choice.

Plastics traditionally have had many advantages – they can easily be molded, they are non-reactive, and they are lighter in weight than traditional metallic or crystalline materials. However, the adaptation of plastic, like that of many materials, has been limited by the need to mass-produce implants with only a limited range of shapes and sizes. In addition, infection of the implant is often a problem, requiring removal and replacement, which is expensive and increases risk to the patient’s health.

The article published in Medical Plastics News this month describes two breakthroughs that should lead to major changes in the realm of cranioplasty. The first is the development of PolyEther Ether Ketone (PEEK), a plastic material that is highly “bio-compatible”, meaning that the body’s immune system is unlikely to reject it. It is also highly resistant to infection.

The second breakthrough, and one that extends beyond the realm of cranioplasty, is the use of modern scanning techniques and 3d printing to produce custom implants that precisely fit the patient’s needs. According to the article, these implants greatly reduce required surgery time and increase success rates.