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Polymers and People


Artificial skin has been laboratory-grown on a polymer scaffold and can be used
for healing chronic wounds of patients with ulcers caused by insufficient blood
flow (Ulcus cruris).)

In April 1997, Dr. Frank Baker, an emergency medicine specialist from the
Chicago area, took part in a clinical trial to test a form of artificial skin for
treating insulin-dependent diabetics whose tissue had been degraded by the secondary effects of chronic high blood sugar. Baker, who has had diabetes for
more than four decades, was in danger of losing a foot because of hard-to-heal
skin ulcers. For him the trial results were close to miraculous: the laboratory-
grown skin didn't just cover and protect his wound, it released chemicals that
caused his own tissue to grow back much faster. As Baker put it, the artificial
skin ”saved my foot“.

The material that worked this medical wonder was synthesized from polymers,
long molecular chains formed by the chemical bonding of many small molecules
of one or more types. Most people are probably more familiar with polymers in
the form of the plastics that make up such everyday products as plastic food containers, bubble wrap packing, and videotape. But polymers also are found everywhere in nature. Wood, animal and vegetable fibers, bone, and horn are polymers, for example, as is the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) inside the cell
nucleus and the membrane that separates one cell from another. Indeed, when
the polymer industry began in the nineteenth century, it made materials that
were derived from natural polymers--artificial celluloid from plant cellulose, for instance. Eventually the industry began synthesizing new materials, such as
nylon, that replaced natural materials and were made without natural precursors. Today products that straddle the boundary between living and nonliving – like
Frank Baker's artificial skin –are beginning to suggest exciting possibilities for improving human health.

Behind these developments lies more than 150 years of progress in polymer research by hundreds of scientists as well as more than a century of research
in cell biology and organ transplants. The path to recent advances in modern
medical treatment began with the investigations of scientists interested in a
better basic understanding of chemistry and biology.

© U.S. National Academy of Sciences, September 1999

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The Mystery of Polymers Unraveled


Bakelite, one of the first plastics, was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1909. Its rapid success sparked a flurry of synthesis investigations and innovations in both America and Europe.

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This timeline highlights the most fundamentally important inventions and research results leading to a better understanding of polymers and to the development of innovative polymer applications in medicine.

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