New copper material promises to be the superbug fighter

Researchers found that the material took just one hour to kill 99.7 percent of Staphylococcus aureus.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Bacteria is dangerousManjurul/iStock
  • The new material has “tiny bumps that can kill bacteria by rupturing their cell wall.”
  • It also includes zinc.
  • Tests done on the material revealed that it took just one hour to kill 99.7 percent of Staphylococcus aureus—a Gram-positive pathogen commonly responsible for hospital-acquired infections.

Although bacteria can have some beneficial properties, like eating plastic or converting CO2 into useful materials, we can agree that most of them are bad for humans. So how do we go about protecting ourselves from their harmful effects?

Killing bacteria quicker and better

A team of UBC researchers led by Dr. Amanda Clifford, an assistant professor in the department of materials engineering, has conceived of a nano-copper coating that kills bacteria quicker and in greater amounts than current formulations, according to a press release by the institution published on Thursday.

It does this by including bacteria-killing nanoscale features and zinc. The nanoscale features are described as “tiny bumps that can kill bacteria by rupturing their cell wall.” Their impact is further amplified by the presence of zinc which selectively oxidizes when in contact with copper and helps kill bacteria more quickly compared to pure copper alone.

“Use of our coating could significantly reduce the incidence of contracting bacterial infections from high-touch surfaces in healthcare facilities, such as doorknobs and elevator buttons, since it kills bacteria using multiple approaches,” said Clifford. “As it contains less copper than other existing coatings or whole copper parts, it would also be cheaper to make.”

Tests done on the material revealed that it took just one hour to kill 99.7 percent of Staphylococcus aureus—a Gram-positive pathogen commonly responsible for hospital-acquired infections— compared to two hours for pure copper.

New copper material promises to be the superbug fighter
Bacteria can be found everywhere.

“Not only does this coating kill pathogens faster than pure copper, it helps ensure antibiotics remain effective,” added Clifford. “By using this new formulation, we’re killing pathogens before patients become infected and need to use antibiotics against them, slowing the rise of antibiotic resistance.”

Applications abound

The researchers that have filed a provisional patent for the coating and fabrication process say the new material could have many applications in high-traffic facilities, but they are currently focused on healthcare-related environments.

“This is currently targeted for hospitals and healthcare settings because these locations are where the antibiotic-resistant pathogens, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are an issue. We also don’t want to be at a place where we can't use antibiotics,” concluded Clifford.

The team has hopes that the material could also be used against other pathogens, such as viruses, and that their work could eventually be commercialized. If it does get approval for mass production, it could revolutionize how we approach healthcare.

Instead of constantly sanitizing surfaces, we could rest assured that these areas are naturally bacteria and virus free. This is especially soothing in post-COVID times, although the researchers did not specify whether their invention also works on the coronavirus.

It seems we will have to wait and see what other uses the team finds for their novel material. The study was published in Advanced Materials Interfaces.

Abstract:

Contaminated surfaces are a major source of nosocomial infection. To reduce microbial bioburden and surface-based transmission of infectious disease, the use of antibacterial and self-sanitizing surfaces, such as copper (Cu), is being explored in clinical settings. Cu has long been known to have antimicrobial activity. However, Gram-positive microorganisms, a class that includes pathogens commonly responsible for hospital-acquired infection such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridioides difficile, are more resilient to its biocidal effect. Inspired by inherently bactericidal nanostructured surfaces found in nature, an improved Cu coating is developed, engineered to contain nanoscale surface features and thus increase its antibacterial activity against a broader range of organisms. In addition, a new method is established for facilitating the rapid and continuous release of biocidal metal ions from the coating, through incorporation of an antibacterial metal salt (ZnCl2) with a lower reduction potential than Cu. Electrophoretic deposition (EPD) is used to fabricate these coatings, which serves as a low-cost and scalable route for modifying existing conductive surfaces with complex shape. By tuning both the surface morphology and chemistry, a nanocomposite Cu coating is created that decreases the microbial bioburden of Gram-positive S. aureus by 94% compared to unmodified Cu.

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