ChE Prof & Chair Thomas Webster’s Research in Preventing Hospital Infections Featured in The Scientist
When most patients enter a hospital, they are looking for treatment and illness prevention; however they risk leaving with an infection they weren’t planning on. With the recent rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 720,000 patients acquired an infection while being treated in a health care facility; more than 75,000 of those people died.
In the article “Nanoscale Defenses” in The Scientist, research in nanotechnology provides a solution to these health threats through bacteria-resistant surfaces, water protection, and nanopatterned devices. Healthcare-associated infections include pneumonia, gastrointestinal illness, urinary tract infections, and primary bloodstream infections.
Thomas Webster, Professor and Department Chair, Chemical Engineering and Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engineering researches both bacteria resistant surfaces and nanopatterned devices to fight infections. In 2013, the President of the US Society For Biomaterials teamed up with one of his former graduate students to create a selenium nanoparticle spray that can be applied to any surface to cut down on microbial numbers. The spray dries within minutes, leaving a layer of antimicrobial nanoparticles behind, and was shown to be nonhazardous in small-animal toxicity studies. Testing the spray on common hospital items, including chairs, bed sheets, and even paper towels, the researchers found that it decreased the overall microbial burden. “We have seen we can turn almost any material into one that reduces bacterial adhesion and growth, all by implementing nanoscale features,” Webster notes.
Other surfaces that are prone to bacterial growth are those of medical implants, such as hip and knee replacement joints or artificial heart valves. The use of nanosilver as a coating on embedded medical devices can hinder biofilm formation “We can use nanosurface features to control energy to reduce bacteria growth so we never get to the point of having a biofilm. However, if one forms, we have also developed nanoparticles that can penetrate them to kill bacteria inside. These are magnetic nanoparticles where magnetic forces can be used. These have been shown to be much more effective than drugs,” Webster remarks.
Nanopatterned surfaces in metal or plastic have many benefits including decreasing bacterial cells and potentially reducing healing time and pain after surgery. “Small, long nanofeatures do not allow the somewhat stiff bacteria to attach, yet they allow mammalian cells to function,” Webster explains.