DNA icon
Growing with the Life Sciences Industry
by Suzanne Fenton, Spartech
The life sciences industry uses an array of performance plastics, from common materials such as polypropylene (PP), acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) or acrylic (PMMA) to specialized resins such as polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and polysulfone (PSU). These materials are formed into sheets, rods, tubes and films for products as diverse as tanks to pharmaceutical packaging and diagnostic equipment to prosthetics. This range of materials and form is due to the nature of the industry: The life sciences industry includes any organization, whether businesses or research institutions, that provides products and services to improve and/or protect life of all kinds, which means not only human but plant and animal life as well.

These organizations can conduct research, develop and manufacture items such as medical devices and diagnostic equipment, pharmaceuticals, prosthetics, food processing, botanical science and crop technologies, to name a few applications. As innovations and investments continue in these areas, some are growing quickly. Investments in this industry show optimism about future growth. To keep that growth on track, companies are concerned about keeping their supply chain operating efficiently and cost effectively. Many companies outsource manufacturing to other countries, but plastics distributors, with their stocking and fabrication services that can supply multiple levels in the supply chain, have the local edge.

Uses of performance plastics
Distributors serve the life sciences industry in many ways. They can provide rigid and flexible packaging options. Larger pieces, such as components for diagnostic equipment, include plastic sheet because vacuum formed panels are more cost effective than injection molded process used for small parts. Another consideration for this equipment is its fire rating. Distributors can offer sustainable options because polyvinyl chloride (PVC)/acrylic and PVC/ABS sheets can be manufactured from post-industrial scrap.

Smaller parts for devices and instruments that are used outside the body or implanted in the body must withstand even more harsh conditions and stringent regulations. Plastics may be subject to sterilization, reagents, bodily fluids and extreme temperatures so they must be the most durable and highest quality plastics. Materials that fit this profile include acrylics, polycarbonate (PC) and PP. Cast acrylic is used for in-vitro diagnostics devices such as blood glucose monitors, self-test devices and devices for detecting infectious agents, to name a few. It is also used for prosthetics and orthopedic appliances, which are exposed to all the above environments.

skull with acrylic cast
Cast acrylics such as Polycast® PMMA sheet, rods and tubes can withstand the harsh external treatments and in-vitro environments, so they are excellent for prosthetic and orthopedic appliances.
For clarity and ease of machining, polycarbonate is used to make syringes and suction catheters. For equipment that has multiple, long-term uses such as surgical equipment, instrument components, polycarbonate is excellent as some polycarbonate resins are resistant to gamma, radiation and E-beam sterilization.

When used as a life sciences plastic, PP sheet is easily formed into surgical trays and sterilization containers because it can withstand high temperatures. It also has excellent chemical, impact and abrasion resistance. It can be an economical alternative to high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or ABS — other popular industrial-grade plastic sheets.

Plastics are used not only in equipment and devices. Pharmaceutical packaging and crop technologies use various film structures; for example, tablet packaging uses duplex and triplex laminated structures with an oxygen and moisture barrier. Some European manufacturers are starting to use polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE) barrier coated films as a lower cost alternative to PVC.

PP and polyethylene (PE) breathable bags are paired with breather patch material to control transpiration of biologically generated gases through the breathable membrane to sustain consistent growth of spawn or tissue culture in a separate, sterile environment. Some of these applications are for use as an isolated, aseptic (sterile) bio-product environment and allowing needed transpiration of gases would be for tissue culture growth and bioreactors for seed or tissue culture growth.