Heriot-Watt University has developed a way to turn chewing gum scraped off of the streets of the UK into later flow tests to cut medical waste.

Researchers at the Scottish university have produced five devices made from a range of recyclable plastics ranging from old fridge parts made from High Impact Polystyrenes (HIPs) to Limex, a material derived from limestone.

Researchers estimate that there are around 16,000 tonnes of plastics produced globally for rapid testing every year to be used in a single-use lateral flow test (LFT). However, traditionally the use of recycled plastics for use in diagnostics presents the threat of contamination.

Maïwenn Kersaudy-Kerhoas, lead academic at Heriot-Watt University’s global research Institute for Health and Care Technologies, said: “If we can make LFTs out of sustainable materials and without the use of fossil fuels in their production, we can save between 30% and 80% of carbon emissions that virgin plastic processing produces.

“We’ve now had approval to test these prototypes, making sure they function as well as the existing ones, particularly regarding the flow of liquid on the testing strip. As well as demonstrating feasibility in their practical application, these new devices help to support a wide-ranging discussion around healthcare sustainability in general and how we might develop a circular economy through potential changes in procurement and legislation.”

It comes as part of a drive among the University to pursue environmentally sustainable medical device and healthcare advances, including the establishment of a Medical Device Manufacturing Centre (MDMC), based out of the university, aiming to address medical device sourcing problems for the National Health Service (NHS) backed by £3.5m ($4.4m) from Scottish Enterprise.

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A market model by GlobalData found that the global Lateral Flow Test market is set to continue its steady growth, despite seeing a spike through the Covid-19 pandemic. The model estimates that the market for in vitro diagnostics will reach $3bn by 2030.

Steve McLaughlin, deputy principal for research and impact at Heriot-Watt and the director of Health & Care Technologies, said: “The mission of the new global research institute in Health and Care Technologies is to work closely with industry and sector partners to deliver innovative, sustainable, and use-inspired solutions to help solve global health challenges in a spirit of co-creation.

“The work Maiwenn is doing on sustainable LFTs is exactly the sort of project we want to support and we have the world-leading research and engineering capabilities here at Heriot-Watt to do it.”