Research by Laura Barillas proved that plasma (material at very high temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees Celsius) can be used to coat plastic implants, these implants, being polymers, are cheaper and lighter; and by coating them with certain materials prevents the body from rejecting them.

Laura Barillas, one of the first graduates of the Master’s Degree in Medical Device Engineering, from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), found in her graduation project that plasma can be used to coat and improve medical implants made of polymers (plastics).

This project is focused on what is surface modification, for medical devices, in this case for implants. What was done was to use a technique or technology called Plasma Spray, known worldwide, that in the country does not exist yet. With this, it is possible to coat the orthopedic implants with a material that is bioactive, antibacterial, or both.

Bioactive materials are those who have the property of establishing chemical bonds with the tissue. In the case of bone tissue, this process is known as osseointegration, decreasing the possibility of the body rejecting the implant because a certain material (hydroxyapatite) is being deposited which makes the body recognize it as if it were part of it. And an antibacterial, which in this case would be copper, which serves to prevent bacteria from growing and reproducing, preventing infections after implantation” explains Barillas.

The project was entitled “Bioactive and antibacterial depositions by Plasma Spray on polymers used in orthopedic and tissue engineering applications“, and was guided by Dr. Jorge Cubero Sesín (TEC) and Dr. Holger Testrich (INP Greifswald).

Lighter and cheaper implants

Barillas intention of working with polymer implants is that they have lots of advantages in patients, such as:

  • Low cost
  • Low specific weight
  • More functional
  • Ideal for additive manufacturing (3D printing, allowing more precision in its design and construction)

So Barillas decided to try the technique of Plasma Spray, that basically consist in spraying materials with plasma so that they adhere to a piece.

Thus, it is possible to add materials such as hydroxyapatite, a mineral that makes up to 70% of our bones, so that the patient’s body does not reject the implant.

The scientist also experimented with copper, as an antibacterial material that serves to prevent infections.

Tests where carried in three types of polymers:

  • PEEK (Polyetheretherketone), with high mechanical resistance, and that in Barillas words, is bioinert, “by not producing chemical reactions between the tissue and the implant, since the body sees it and does nothing, has no bioactivity, does not harm it or it does him good”.
  • PLA (polylactic acid), which is bio absorbable, meaning that it disintegrates in the body over time, and it is widely used in 3D printing
  • PVA (polyvinyl acetate), which is also bio absorbable

It is a new investigation, since in Costa Rica Plasma Spray has never been applied in any area (included industrial area) and in the world only a handful of investigations have explored polymers application, as detailed by the scientist:

“The importance of this project and why people and scientists of the Leibniz Institute of Germany were so interested, is that practically no one has worked on polymers with Plasma Spray, there are about five or six investigations that I have found about the topic, which is very little, so that’s why it is interesting to continue investigating”, says Barillas.

Trials were carried out in Leibniz Institute of Sciences and Technology, in Greifswald, Germany, where Barilla hopes to continue to investigate the topic, when she starts her Doctorate in the second semester of this year. The institute is worldwide leader in plasma application y the area of plasma medicine.

“The experimentation was carried out in Germany since Costa Rica doesn’t have the Plasma Spray equipment and because of the quality of the investigation institute. Furthermore, the equipment worth half a million of dollars is in Germany, and it is part of what we negotiated with them (scientists from Germany), who were so interested in the topic that they allowed me to go and do my research to the Institute, since they had never worked with polymers”, explained the scientist.

Meanwhile, the Laboratory of Plasmas for Energy Synergy and Applications of TEC, where Barillas works, is planning to acquire its own Plasma Spray low energy equipment (LEPS), that is being designed and constructed by the researcher, within the framework of the project registered in the Vice-rectory of Research and Extension titled “Plasma Spray depositions of hydroxyapatite” which Dr. Jorge Cuber Sesín is also a member.

The equipment will serve to do similar investigations as the one carried out by Barillas, applied to medical devices and industrial utilities.

A unique Master’s

The Master’s in Engineering in Medical Devices, unique in Latin America, delivered this year the first 29 graduates.

Of those, only Barillas and other student opted for the academic Master’s, that is mainly focused on research. The other 27 students chose the professional Master’s.

We had professors from the United States, that is something that has a great value, since teachers from the University of Minnesota, one of the best in medical devices worldwide, where teaching us” argued Barillas.

“This Masters that is being taught Alajuela campus, has professors from University of Minnesota (USA) and University of Zaragoza (Spain).