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Fighting antimicrobial resistance using new technology

Hospital-acquired infections both cause and contribute to resistance, but technology may be able to help.

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing problem, as some infections that used to be easily cured are now immune to even the most powerful antibiotics. These resistant microorganisms are difficult to treat and may be transmitted to other people, especially those already ill or vulnerable.

One of the biggest arenas in which this fight takes place is hospitals and other health care facilities, but new technology is joining the battle.

One approach has been to use ultraviolet (UV) light, which destroys bacteria but also has limitations. Copper-coated surfaces are self-sanitizing and, therefore, might help fill in the gap.

Dr. Chetan Jinadatha is a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine and chief of infectious diseases at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System in Temple, Texas. He and his colleagues recently completed a pilot study demonstrating how copper-coated surfaces might work, and their results were published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

“UV has limitations: You can’t use it when the patient is in the room and we’re providing care, and you can’t get into tiny crevices where light doesn’t easily reach,” Jinadatha said. “We need to keep the bioburden — or the number of potentially infectious organisms — as low as possible, so we started looking for a technology to do so.”

Jinadatha and his team placed a bedside tray table coated with a laminate material impregnated with copper oxide in 11 occupied rooms in the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Temple. They also studied 11 other rooms that used a standard laminate tray table, which acted as a control.

Results indicated that the surfaces with the copper compound accumulated a lower bioburden than the control surfaces after the first full day of use.

“It’s a small pilot study, but it is promising,” Jinadatha said.

What differentiates this product from other substances with similar properties is that it is already scalable, it can be put over existing hospital infrastructure like bed rails, the material is easy to shape and — because the copper is embedded throughout — the antimicrobial properties are not likely to wear off and be rendered ineffective.

The research team’s next step is to put the copper-embedded plastic into more patient rooms and to cover five different surfaces, including bed rails, with it. They will also be studying its effectiveness over a longer period of time and on a wider variety of pathogens.

“We will be examining whether this material can reduce hospital-acquired infections and, essentially, pay for itself,” Jinadatha said. “As long as it breaks even, we anticipate that there will be lots of interest.”

This technology — and anything else that can slow infection rates — also helps in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. “If we are causing less spreading of bacteria, then we are using lower amounts of antibiotics on fewer numbers of people, which means we are less likely to cause resistance in those patients,” Jinadatha said. “It’s indirect, but we do believe that it will help in the long run.”

Furthermore, the microbes are not expected to develop resistance to copper — or to UV light, for that matter — because they are naturally occurring in the environment, which generally means the bacteria can’t evolve a resistance to them, although that’s something else the researchers will be examining in the forthcoming larger study.

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