Bionic plastic fantastic

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Bionic electrode
Bionic eye test electrode, with one set of metal electrodes (left) and conducting bioplastic electrodes (right)

Photo: Rylie Green

Plastics that carry natural body proteins could improve the performance of artificial body parts such as the cochlear ear and even the bionic eye.

A bionic implant is an artificial body part that connects with the body’s nervous system. It sends electrical signals to the body that can be interpreted by the brain. A tricky part of placing a bionic implant in the body is getting the surrounding body tissue to accept and grow on the implant. This is where the new plastics will help.

At the moment, implant electrodes are made from metals such as platinum and iridium. The body sees this as an ‘intruder’, and forms a wall of scar tissue around the implant. To stimulate the nerve cells through this scar wall, the implants have to use stronger and stronger electrical impulses. Stronger impulses can damage cells and produce toxins.

A young researcher from the University of New South Wales, Rylie Green, is working on coating the electrodes of artificial implants with special plastics that electronic signals can travel through. These plastics carry natural body proteins, similar to the ones that occur throughout our bodies, and have a rough surface. This helps the surrounding body cells grow onto the electrode surface, and means that less scar tissue forms around the implant.

‘Our plastics will lead to smaller devices that use safer, smaller currents and that encourage nerve interaction,’ says Rylie.

In the lab, Rylie has seen live cells grow on the plastic electrodes. The next step is to implant the plastics into animal cells. In the future, these plastics may be also used in bionic limbs and in the bionic eye.

Her work was presented for the first time in public during Fresh Science, a communication boot camp for early career scientists held at the Melbourne Museum. Rylie is one of 16 winners from across Australia.

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