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Two unexpected approaches to infection control

by Nancy Ryerson, Staff Writer | August 19, 2013
A sterilizing device
that uses plasma.
Two surprising new infection control tools have popped in research settings, and may be coming to kill bacteria in a hospital near you in the not-too-distant future. The latest potential weapons? Copper surfaces and cold plasma.

When a bacterium falls on copper tables or doorknobs, the copper can pull the electrons away and disrupt its biological processes. ECRI Institute has been investigating the phenomenon for the last three years.

"The health care application is relatively new, but way back in India cultures used copper vessels and didn't get sick," Elke Nelson, assistant manager of health tech forecast service at ECRI, told DOTmed News. "They just knew. Now we're starting to examine those properties in the health care space."

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A preliminary study in the Infection Control and Hospital
Epidemiology found that outfitting ICU rooms with copper touch surfaces can reduce the number of hospital acquired infections by 58 percent.

Plus, one benefit of using copper surfaces is that it's a passive technology, unlike UV light systems, which require human interaction.

"The idea is that between the cleanings the burden remains low, and touching any surface in between the cleaning reduces the risk of transmission — that's why it's a novel approach as opposed to other methods of disinfection," said Nelson.

The power of plasma

Researchers at Texas A&M University have found another innovative infection control technique: plasma, the same ionized gas used in florescent lights.

Elements of the plasma, such as ions and free radicals, react with organic materials on a microscopic scale. Once the researchers found a way to make plasma room-temperature, they knew they had something promising.

"We tested infectious bacteria, and basically what we find is these cold plasma reactive species react with these bacterial cell surfaces and basically rupture," said Magesh Thiyagarajan, director of Plasma Engineering Research Lab (PERL) at Texas A&M. "Then you're looking at instant sterilization."

Thiyagarajan said hospitals could use the plasma in a microwave-style chamber to disinfect hospital supplies like syringes and scissors. The team also developed a plasma spray that could be used on surfaces, and a thin plasma "needle" that could be used for small area treatments, such as on dental tools.

He said he hopes to have plasma-based products in hospitals for testing within the year.

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