W.L. Gore marks half century of groundbreaking material 

NEWARK — Every home in America likely has some form of the landmark expanded polytetrafluoroethylene, better known by its initials ePTFE, produced by W.L. Gore & Associates in it, but the multiuse material was born out of a fluke 50 years ago this month. 

It was on Oct. 28, 1969, that Bob Gore, son of W.L. Gore & Associates founders Wilbert and Genevieve Gore, discovered ePTFE that would dramatically expand – quite literally – the company’s product line. 

William “Bill” Gore, a DuPont chemical engineer who was convinced that the company’s PTFE could have lucrative uses in computers, left his job and founded W.L. Gore & Associates in his home basement with his wife in 1958. Bill’s intuitions were right, as the ribbon cable insulated by PTFE became a boon to the burgeoning computing field and the company expanded internationally within a decade.  

Bob was attempting to fulfill a large order for the less expensive PTFE tape, and he thought that by heating the material up it could be stretched to yield more product with less material. Despite repeated attempts to stretch the material, however, he couldn’t get his idea to work. 

Bob Gore, former president and chairman of W. L. Gore & Associates, reenacts the discovery of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE). | Photo c/o W.L. Gore & Associates

Frustrated one night in the lab and about to give up on the idea, he yanked the material and it unexpectedly stretched the full length of his wingspan while retaining its original diameter.

Bob realized that the sudden force combined with a high temperature incorporated air in the PTFE’s structure, allowing it to expand exponentially. This new material, known as ePTFE, was stronger and porous with a unique microstructure – and it quickly became the cornerstone for Gore’s business, entering the commercial market within a year. 

“It has been 50 years since Bob Gore discovered these new properties and effectively began the sequence of ePTFE innovation we now know and continue today,” W.L. Gore & Associates President and CEO Jason Field said in a statement. “The monumental impact ePTFE continues to have, not just on Gore as an enterprise, but on thousands of other inventions across diverse industries, is truly revolutionary and immensely beneficial.” 

Today, the material found in everyday objects like Dell computers, dental floss and guitar strings, as well as lifesaving devices such as sutures and vascular grafts. It is found in data transmission cables on the International Space Station and in the Gore-Tex coats that many wear out in the rain. According to the company, the original ePTFE patent is cited more often than the patent for GPS technology or ink jet printing for new technology being developed today. 

While ePTFE has largely served utilitarian needs in its first 50 years, it’s next half century could be marked by some exciting advancements in new fields. 

Dr. Esen Akpek, professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has been incorporating ePTFE into her research for a better artificial cornea, or the outer layer of the eye.  

While corneal transplantation is a fairly routine in America, with tens of thousands performed every year, it isn’t overseas, especially in Third World countries. In fact, a 2016 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that for every 70 people who needed a corneal transplant worldwide, only one would get the needed operation. 

Akpek explained that the biggest challenge for corneal transplants is the small number of eye banks overseas, the difficulty in storing and transporting the perishable material and the lack of transportation systems to bring patients, surgeons and the donor cornea together. 

Gore has developed this prototype artificial cornea, which contains ePTFE in part, for a Johns Hopkins University ophthalmology professor’s research.

“Even in eye banks, corneas are very perishable, only lasting up to five days,” she added. “On top of that, it typically takes about two days to get the necessary approvals from a decedent’s family and the required serology results. So you really only have a three-day window in most cases.” 

With those challenges in mind, ophthalmologists have long sought an artificial cornea that was crystal clear, water-tight, germ-tight, and able to be sutured to a recipient’s cornea, Akpek said. 

While she has specialized in corneal transplantation for years, testing a variety of other artificial materials, none had ever met the many delicate needs of her work – that is until Gore engineers came to her about four years ago. Their prototype was a mix of ePFTE and a fluorocarbon that fit Akpek’s needs. 

“I think the Gore material is special because it is all of those things, but also strong and flexible,” she said. “The engineers are also able to refract the material as well, which is needed to correct vision issues without the use of glasses or contact lens.” 

For the past two years, Akpek has worked with Gore engineers to refine the artificial cornea during trial surgeries in rabbits – and the results have been very encouraging, she said. The corneas haven’t been rejected by the animals, nor have they shown signs of glaucoma, another typical side effect to transplantation. 

Akpek hopes to begin trials in humans in the next few years. 

“I think we’ve found the right fit with Gore’s material,” she said.

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