Medical and biomedical demand for platinum

  • 13 Sep 2021
  • By World Platinum Investment Council

Around 25 percent of annual platinum consumption – excluding automotive demand – is industrial. Of this, medical and biomedical demand for platinum is a relatively small, yet consistent, component. In 2020, platinum demand from medical and biomedical applications was 235 koz and it accounted for three percent of total platinum demand. Today, platinum plays a major role in combating some of the most serious health issues facing the world, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Many of the medical and biomedical procedures that rely on platinum components also provide a wider social and economic benefit, reducing health spending costs and enabling better management of valuable healthcare resources. For example, platinum wire braiding techniques used in the treatment of cardiovascular disorders has led to the development of less invasive procedures with quicker recovery times. 

Figure 1: Sources of platinum demand

Source: WPIC Platinum Quarterly, five-year annual % ranges 2016-2020

Figure 2: Sources of industrial platinum demand in 2020, 7,663 koz

Source: WPIC Platinum Quarterly, Metals Focus 

Platinum’s unique properties

Platinum is known for its excellent biocompatibility, radiopacity (visibility in x-rays), and electro-conductivity and is used extensively in permanent, implantable medical devices such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, and neuromodulators.

With the highest atomic number of all medically used materials, it is platinum’s high density that enables it to be seen clearly in X-ray imaging as this makes it extremely effective at absorbing X-rays rather than allowing them to pass through it. Platinum’s radiopacity is put to great use when performing delicate, life-saving procedures to treat patients with neurovascular disorders.

Platinum’s excellent mechanical strength means it can be made into tiny, complex shapes. It is ductile and can be pulled into thin and delicate wires, as well as being inert, therefore it does not corrode easily. Treatment of aneurysms, which are a bulging or ballooning of a blood vessel wall that is at risk of rupture, uses platinum wire braiding techniques.

Figure 3: Why platinum is well-suited to medical applications

Platinum is used to make medical devices because it is:

  • Biocompatible – not harmful or toxic to living tissue, and unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.
  • Conductive – allows for the flow of an electrical current
  • Dense – composed of closely compacted atoms – the denser a substance it is, the heavier it feels
  • Ductile – a material’s ability to be stretched before it breaks
  • Inert – chemically inactive, and therefore stable and unlikely to react with other substances
  • Mechanically resistant – the extent to which a structure resists motion when subjected to force
  • Resistant to corrosion – does not damage or destroy other substances when it comes into contact with them
  • Radiopaque – easily visible in x-ray imaging

Platinum-based treatments for cancer

Platinum has been at the forefront of cancer treatment for more than forty years. The introduction of the first platinum-based anti-cancer drug, cisplatin, in 1978 revolutionized the treatment of certain cancers. Cisplatin has been especially successful in the treatment of testicular cancer, and today, with surgery and combination chemotherapy treatment, there is a cure rate approaching 99 percent for patients with stage one of this disease.

Cisplatin is a platinum compound and, when administered through an intravenous injection directly into the blood stream, it works by interacting with DNA to destroy cancer cells and prevent them from multiplying.

The ability of platinum compounds to kill off cancer cells was an accidental discovery. In 1965, US biochemist Barnett Rosenberg conducted research into the effects of an electrical field on bacterial growth. Inexplicably, the bacteria cells responded by failing to divide and dying off.

Initially, Rosenberg thought this was because of the effects of the electrical field, but further investigation led to the conclusion that the platinum electrodes used to create the electric circuit were themselves reacting with the test solution. This reaction created a platinum compound that was, in fact, responsible for killing the cells.

Building on this knowledge, scientists found that cancer cells behaved in a similar way – the platinum compound causing them to die off. From here, several years of intense research led to the development of cisplatin, selected from a range of possible molecular combinations to create an optimal compromise between toxicity and efficacy.

Cisplatin, with a 65 percent platinum content, has well known side effects and certain cancers can develop a resistance to it. Despite these drawbacks, it is still a front-line cancer treatment, although additional platinum-based therapies have since been developed to mitigate against these issues. Carboplatin, containing 52.5 percent platinum, was approved in 1986 and is used mainly to treat ovarian and lung cancers. Available since 1996, Oxaliplatin with 49 percent platinum is used to treat colorectal cancer.

Today, around half of all patients undergoing treatment for cancer receive platinum-based chemotherapy as a first-line treatment that can work alongside newer technologies such as hormonal therapy and immunotherapy.

New platinum formulations are currently in development and the hope is to improve targeting and reduce toxicity further, as well as producing a medication that can be taken orally, allowing patients to be treated at home.

Platinum in the fight against COVID-19

Instruments that read blood gas composition are proving vital as a diagnostic tool for healthcare professionals treating the COVID-19 virus as they help to screen, diagnose, and monitor patients suffering from respiratory compromise. They can be used across a wide range of settings from emergency medicine and critical care to dialysis units or the laboratory. Platinum is the material of choice for electrodes in blood gas analyzers due to its fast response and reduced measurement error compared with other electrode options.

Platinum catalysts in the chemical sector are also playing their part and are involved in the manufacture of both polypropylene and medical-grade silicones for sought-after personal protective equipment (PPE) and other disposable medical products.

PGM catalysts are also used in the production of many active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), including antibiotics used in the treatment of some COVID-19 patients. An API is the biologically active component of a pharmaceutical product.

Outlook for medical and biomedical platinum demand

Medical and biomedical demand for platinum fell by six percent to 235 koz between 2019 and 2020 as a result of pandemic-related curtailment of elective procedures and other non-COVID-19 related treatment. However, it is anticipated that 2021 will see growth of five percent, with demand climbing to close to pre-pandemic levels at 247 koz.

According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme, the world’s population is set to grow to over 8.5 billion by 2050, with the number of those aged 65 or older forecasted to double by then. What is more, the World Health Organization is committed to tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease and cancer through targets set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In addition, the United Nations has the goal of achieving universal health coverage, reaffirming “the right of every human being, without distinction of any kind, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”, also by 2030.

These longer-term trends – changing demographics and increasing access to advanced medical care in both developed and developing countries – augur well for the growth of platinum demand in medical and biomedical applications. For example, it is estimated that 700,000 pacemakers are fitted each year around the world – a market that is likely to increase as a result of these socio-economic factors. Demand for cochlear implants, which stood at 75,000 per year in 2016, is also forecasted to rise. Johnson Matthey – a global supplier of high-grade platinum wire and sheet used to make components for cochlear implants – anticipates that this figure could grow to over 175,000 implants per year by 2022.

Similarly, platinum in neuromodulation devices, used to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, is poised to be a growth area over the next decade, according to the International Neuromodulation Society ‒ citing a market research report from Neurotech Reports. In 2018 the market was estimated to be worth US $8.4 billion, with the potential to be worth US $13.3 billion by 2022.

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