For medical professionals attempting to treat the various ailments afflicting humans, having advanced biomedical devices to reach affected areas or even to replace ‘broken’ parts is crucial. While researchers and engineers have come a long way since the advent of modern
medicine, there is a constant race towards smaller, more durable and versatile instruments. Instruments that reduce the need for highly invasive surgeries and devices that better mimic the complex tissues we need to fix. Fortunately, materials science has advanced too and is providing the
biomedical community with new materials with which to work. When Tetsuya Horiuchi began working in this field during his university years, he immediately saw a need for materials softer than the standard iron, titanium or plastic. Soft though wasn’t enough. ‘A material that is
only soft is not so interesting,’ says Horiuchi, ‘I wanted to use something special and five years ago I found ionic polymer composite (IPMC) actuators and thus began my work with these soft actuators.’ Put simply, actuators are the components of a machine that control its
movements and functioning; the opening of a valve or the bending of springs for example. Actuators require a control signal and an energy source and this is why the IPMC material is so interesting. IPMCs are synthetic nanomaterials that carry currents and signals, plus they act like artificial
muscles when current is applied. This makes them an ideal candidate for biomedical devices and Horiuchi is taking full advantage. His work currently focuses mainly on projects using IPMC actuators in the design of catheters, which can reach deeper into the brain to treat aneurysms, as well
as in a replacement lens for patients suffering from cataracts. For both devices, treating the condition is the main goal, but in doing so, these devices may also improve patient’s quality of life and relieve the burden of care on caregivers. ‘Currently, three young people are
needed to support one senior, but due to increasing numbers of old people, in the very near future only one young person may be available for each senior and this will be very tough for society,’ explains Horiuchi. Therefore, improving the quality of life for seniors with these devices
will restore their independence and reduce their need for care.
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