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Biomaterials - The Technology of the Futureby Pamela M. Gannon
When people hear the term "biomaterials" what often comes to mind are science-fiction-like images of artificial organs and implanted medical devices. In an interview with MIT's Technology Review, Dr. Robert Langer, Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at MIT and a pioneer in biomaterials research, describes how biomaterials have actually been in existence for over 2000 years in the case of dental fillings. According to Dr. Langer, in terms of sheer poundage, fillings are still the most common biomaterials in use today.
For the modern era, Dr. Langer defines a biomaterial as "any substance other than food or drugs contained in a therapeutic system that's in contact with biological tissues or fluids." Currently, the term biomaterials encompasses a vast array of technologies, including tissue engineering, artificial organs, bioceramics, medical devices and implantable drug delivery systems. These modern biomaterials applications are very exciting because they could revolutionize how we receive medical treatment and therapy.
For current information about biomaterials, the Biomaterials Network provides the most comprehensive collection of online resources. The site launched as a link collection in 1998 and recently added several interactive features. The Biomaterials Network aims to become a hub for scientists to find information and share information with each other. The bulk of the Biomaterials Network site is still comprised of the extensive, well-organized link collection, which includes links to biomaterials web sites, professional societies, scientific journals, educational programs and research centers. In addition, the site lists links to general information on biomedical engineering, biology and medicine.
The Biomaterials Network also features current news and information in the field of biomaterials. The Articles section contains full text articles from both scientific publications, such as Biomaterials, and news magazines, such as Time and Business Week. The Biomaterials Network also publishes a monthly newsletter with current research news, industry news, conference updates and new links. Users can receive the newsletter via email or peruse it at the site.
To fully access the Network portion of the site, users must register as members of the Biomaterials Network, which is free of charge. Registered users can post information to the Directory of Researchers and search the Directory for scientists with a particular research expertise. Registered users can also post a job search, browse the Job Offers section and receive updated site information via email.
Another useful general resource is Biomaterials Links developed by the Biomedical Engineering Program at Texas A&M University. This is a great site to get an overview of the different areas in biomaterials and to follow up with relevant links to other web sites. The site is divided into different topic areas, such as blood vessels, valves, orthopedic, polymers, artificial organs and tissue engineering. Each topic area is introduced with a descriptive background summary, followed by links to pertinent web resources. The links include resources for general information, industrial research, academic research, companies and manufacturers, regulatory resources and non-web references on the topic. Short descriptions of each link helps users find the resources that are most relevant to their interests.
Several of the biomaterials professional societies host web sites, which contain information about the society, upcoming events and other items that are relevant to society members. These sites can be a useful place for scientists to obtain conference information and, in some cases, register for conferences.
One of the more extensive sites is provided by The Society for Biomaterials, based in the USA. The site includes a calendar of events, society news, meetings and positions available. Bulletin boards in specific topic areas are available to Society members; the general biomaterials bulletin board at the site is not very active. One particularly useful part of the site, especially for users seeking information about biomaterials in industry, is the Resource Guide. The Guide lists over 50 companies involved in biomaterials work and provides descriptions of their products, direct links to their sites and email contacts.
The European Society for Biomaterials provides minutes from society meetings, job listings and links to member organizations and institutions. The site also has the minutes from the Young Scientists Forum at last year's European Conference on Biomaterials. The web site of the Australian Society for Biomaterials (ASB) provides links to research institutions in Australia and around the world, along with a list of biomaterials conferences. The site also provides automated access to BIOMAT-L, a Biomaterials Mailing List that has been active since 1993. The Canadian Biomaterials Society presents information about society events and meetings and a nice collection of links to Canadian biomaterials web sites and funding sources.
Some of the more interesting and educational online material about biomaterials focuses on specific topic areas, especially tissue engineering. In Time magazine's Visions of the 21st Century issue, Tissue Engineer is listed as the #1 job of the future in What Will Be the 10 Hottest Jobs? The Scientist's Tissue Engineering Now Coming Into Its Own As A Scientific Field presents a nice overview and history of the field of tissue engineering. The article includes comments by prominent tissue engineering scientists and short descriptions of specific tissue engineering projects.
The Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative (PTEI) site focuses on sponsored research labs and PTEI sponsored programs, including biotechnology exposure programs and summer internship programs. The site also provides a nice general description of the field in What is Tissue Engineering? Another useful resource for current news and information about tissue engineering research is the Tissue Engineering Pages. The site includes research articles, a conference calendar and links to research labs and institutions worldwide.
Some fun educational sites feature presentations about modern biomaterials and artificial organs. NOVA's The Electric Heart presents animated graphics of the heart, amazing heart facts, an interview with a heart transplant surgeon and an animation of a heart transplant procedure. The Artificial Human section lets users click on over 20 different body parts, such as skin, liver, heart valves and bone to discover what progress is being made toward reproducing these parts artificially. References are provided to access further information about research on the subjects and companies that are developing the technology.
A PBS Online special, The Man-Made Man describes the actual use of bioengineered cartilage to repair and rehabilitate a devastating knee injury. A sidebar to the article presents New Frontiers in Tissue Engineering, describing particular tissue engineering research currently taking place in industry and academia.
Biomaterials, tissue engineering and artificial organs have captured the imaginations of research scientists, who are investigating the development of these revolutionary products, medical personnel, who are interested in the therapeutic potential of these new technologies, and the general public, who are excited by the possibility of tangible health benefits. The future is certain to bring exciting developments in this field.
Biomaterials.net - a general information center for biomaterials that presents a calendar, research groups, professional societies and access to commonly used databases.
Biomaterials (Elsevier Science) - a scientific journal devoted to biomaterials research. Subscribers can access pre-published full text articles from all issues. Non-subscribers can access pre-published table of contents and abstracts from all issues and full text articles from both Biomaterials Reviews and Biomaterials Special Issues.
Medical DeviceLink.com - provides current news and information about the medical device industry, focusing on industrial developments and regulatory issues.
Growing New Organs - an article in Scientific American that discusses some of the developments in creating living organs to be used as human replacement parts.
Biomaterials (NIST Research Library) - has a nice introduction to the field of biomaterials and a comprehensive bibliography of books and reports through 1997.
Please note: This article was originally commissioned by HMS Beagle.