Medtech at Techtextil / Photo: Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH

Fibres for medical uses: a growing niche

Supposing one looked at the bionic principles in a bifurcating major artery, took a flat-bed knitting machine and tried to create a Y-shaped structure using a process that takes its cue from nature’s own workings.….  This was the task, which began as an academic thesis almost 45 years ago, in Denkendorf near Stuttgart, that launched research into medical textiles in Germany.

Two generations of research and industrial activity later, medical textiles, in the form of implants, fibre-based cartilage or hollow fibres for the targeted delivery of medicines – to mention but a few applications – are some of the innovations in technical textiles that are well on their way into clinical practice. With the increase in solutions to come from research in this area, the number of companies involved is also growing, right across the world, and this, in turn, finds expression in the fields of application covered by Medtech.

According to the trade fair’s management team, 2017 is set to be a bumper year for exhibitor numbers in this segment – a segment that will have a crucial role to play in determining future developments. Well on their way up, in this niche market, are compression textiles, intelligent wound-monitoring systems, sensoric textiles and antibacterial fabrics that protect against widespread hospital germs. Medical textiles, used in T-shirts to monitor patients’ vital parameters, also doubtless represent an international sales and growth market, if not in terms of volume turnover, then, in high-tech configurations, rather more so in niche sectors. In Saxony, to take one example, the textile industry is increasingly investing in textiles for medical and healthcare purposes, in the form of socks with an anti-tick function, vests with electric stimulation for backache or antibacterial hospital linen.

Smart textiles with sensors for monitoring chronic wounds / Source: ITM/TU Dresden

Smart textiles with sensors for monitoring chronic wounds / Source: ITM/TU Dresden

Because, for instance, textile implants need to be clinically tested, authorised and certificated at considerable cost, the process of shifting from the original idea to a product that is usable on the mass market tends to move at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, the field of textiles used in healthcare continues to grow steadily, as Director of R&D at Lohmann & Rauscher GmbH & CO. KG, Dr. Christian Rohrer, emphasised with a look at the figures, at a specialists’ meeting of ‘bayern-innovativ’. “Even though the framework conditions for innovative medical products are not improving, there continues to be a stable and attractive growth market.” Worldwide, says this expert, the forecast is for an annual growth of four percent, up to three percent in Europe and up to 13 percent in China.

Rohner says that, in his field, there are opportunities for future wound treatments, including approaches involving new kinds of biologically active materials, as well as new solutions for fabrics with antimicrobial properties. There is also a trend for integrating sensoric parameters and biological markers. The development work, currently being undertaken by textile researchers in Dresden and Greiz, fits in with this completely: with miniaturised, textile-based sensors, they are seeking to discover new ways of continuously monitoring chronic wounds. Their approach, it is hoped, will make it possible to record complex physiologically and chemically relevant factors.

Hans-Werner Oertel

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