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Beating antibiotic-resistant bacteria one doorknob at a time

The new antimicrobial material may compliment cleaning protocols on high-touch surfaces within the hospital environment, like doorknobs and handrails.

Typical bed in a hospital. Image by Peachyeung316 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Typical bed in a hospital. Image by Peachyeung316 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

A new weapon in the fight against harmful pathogens might be about to be commercialised. This relates to the development of a new material (a synthetic bioorganic material) engineered to limit disease spread, utilising the science of nanotechnology and the ionic properties of metals.

The composite is a combination of an tetraalkylphosphonium ionic liquid and copper nanoparticles. The material may compliment cleaning protocols on high-touch surfaces within the hospital environment, like doorknobs and handrails. This is in the form of a coating that can be applied to existing permanent fixtures in situ without having to take them apart.

Using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), researchers from the University of Windsor (UWindsor) have developed and tested a compound of ionic (salt-based) fluids and copper nanoparticles that can coat surfaces and provide germ-free protection over a prolonged time period.

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) is a national research facility of the University of Saskatchewan and one of the largest science projects in Canada’s history.

According to lead researcher Dr. Abhinandan Banerjee, the composite material is far superior to “somebody with bleach and a rag trying to keep surfaces sanitized.”

He adds: “The problem with conventional sanitization techniques is it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. It requires a dedicated employee or automation” to keep surfaces free from viable bacteria.

Another concern is that frequent wiping of a surface can etch the underlying material, creating even more opportunities for pathogens to gather and to form protective biofilm communities.

Bacteria electron micrograph (showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells). Image by NIAID / via Wikimedia / Public Domain

The researchers came up with a material that takes advantage of copper’s natural germicidal properties. This is based on copper nanoparticles that are electrostatically attracted to the cell walls of bacterial, causing disruption and breakdown.

The kinetic killing assay and regression analyses for time-dependent bactericidal activity of the material against Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus was demonstrated through an increase in log reduction values over time, indicating the effectiveness of the composite material in reducing the viable cell counts for both bacterial strains.

The material could be used in hospitals, greenhouses, agri-food production facilities, laboratories and pharmaceutical settings.  Determining exactly how long the coating remains effective is an important next research step. The experiments will also expand out to investigate the antimicrobial effects of other nanoparticles like zinc and iron. Across all of the materials an assessment of toxicity to humans is required, to avoid the risk of allergic reactions occurring.

A further advantage with the material is to decrease the use of disinfectants, most of which pose harmful environmental effects especially due to the need for repeated applications.

The research is published in the journal RSC Sustainability under the title “Lethal weapon IL: a nano-copper/tetraalkylphosphonium ionic liquid composite material with potent antibacterial activity.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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