IT Sligo Scientist Leads New Discovery In Fight Against Superbugs

A new discovery could control the spread of deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs which experts fear are on course to kill 10 million people every year by 2050 – more than will die from cancer.

A team of scientists, led by Professor Suresh C. Pillai from IT Sligo, have made the significant breakthrough which will allow everyday items – from smartphones to door handles — to be protected against deadly bacteria, including MRSA and E. coli.

The research was published today in prestigious international scientific journal, Scientific Reports, published by the Nature publishing group.

News of the discovery comes just days after UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned that superbugs could become deadlier than cancer and are on course to kill 10 million people globally by 2050.

Speaking at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, Mr Osborne warned that the problem would slash global GDP by around €100 trillion if it was not tackled.

Using nanotechnology, the discovery is an effective and practical antimicrobial solution — an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth — that can be used to protect a range of everyday items.

Items include anything made from glass, metallics and ceramics including computer or tablet screens, smartphones, ATMs, door handles, TVs, handrails, lifts, urinals, toilet seats, fridges, microwaves and ceramic floor or wall tiles.

It will be of particular use in hospitals and medical facilities which are losing the battle against the spread of killer superbugs.

Other common uses would include in swimming pools and public buildings, on glass in public buses and trains, sneeze guards protecting food in delis and restaurants as well as in clean rooms in the medical sector.

The discovery is the culmination of almost 12 years of research by a team of scientists, led by Prof. Suresh C. Pillai initially at CREST (Centre for Research in Engineering Surface Technology) in DIT and then at IT Sligo’s Nanotechnology Research Group (PEM Centre).

“It’s absolutely wonderful to finally be at this stage. This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectvely control the spread of bacteria,” said Prof. Pillai.

He continued: “Every single person has a sea of bacteria on their hands. The mobile phone is the most contaminated personal item that we can have. Bacteria grows on the phone and can live there for up to five months. As it is contaminated with proteins from saliva and from the hand, It’s fertile land for bacteria and has been shown to carry 30 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.”

The research started at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)’s CREST and involves scientists now based at IT Sligo, Dublin City University (DCU) and the University of Surrey. Major researchers included Dr Joanna Carroll and Dr Nigel S. Leyland.

It has been funded for the past eight years by John Browne, founder and CEO of Kastus Technologies Ltd, who is bringing the product to a global market. He was also supported by significant investment from Enterprise Ireland.

As there is nothing that will effectively kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs completely from the surface of items, scientists have been searching for a way to prevent the spread.

This has been in the form of building or ‘baking’ antimicrobial surfaces into products during the manufacturing process.

However, until now, all these materials were toxic or needed UV light in order to make them work. This meant they were not practical for indoor use and had limited commercial application.

“The challenge was the preparation of a solution that was activated by indoor light rather than UV light and we have now done that,” said Prof Pillai.

The new water-based solution can be sprayed onto any glass, ceramic or metallic surface during the production process, rendering the surface 99.9 per cent resistant to superbugs like MRSA, E. coli and other fungi.

The solution is sprayed on the product — such as a smartphone glass surface — and then ‘baked’ into it, forming a super-hard surface. The coating is transparent, permanent and scratch resistant and actually forms a harder surface than the original glass or ceramic material.

The team first developed the revolutionary material to work on ceramics and has spent the last five years adapting the formula – which is non-toxic and has no harmful bi-products ‑- to make it work on glass and metallic surfaces.

Research is now underway by the group on how to adapt the solution for use in plastics and paint, allowing even wider use of the protective material.

Prof Pillai, Kastus and the team have obtained a US and a UK patent on the unique process with a number of global patent applications pending. It is rare for such an academic scientific discovery to have such commercial viability.

“I was sold on this from the first moment I heard about it. It’s been a long road to here but it was such a compelling story that it was hard to walk away from so I had to see it through to the end,” said John Browne, Kastus CEO.

He continued: “This is a game changer. The uniqueness of antimicrobia surface treatment means that the applications for it in the real world are endless. The multinational glass manufacturers we are in negotiations with to sell the product to have been searching for years to come up with such a solution but have failed.”

Professor Declan McCormack, Head of the School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at DIT said: “This is a great example of excellent science being translated into impactful real-life applications. The potential this has in terms of application, and in terms of dealing with the very real issues of infections, is substantial. We are delighted to have collaborated with IT Sligo, DCU, the University of Surrey in the UK and Kastus on this very fruitful research and hope that collaboration continues for many years into the future.”

Professor Vincent Cunnane, President of IT Sligo said: “This landmark piece of research is perfectly in tune with IT Sligo’s ambition to continue to develop our research profile. We want the Institute’s research to have meaningful impact on the development of the region, and society as a whole. This discovery by Suresh and his team is a prime example of that ambition.”

Photo Caption:
Professor Suresh C. Pillai from IT Sligo led the team of scientists which has made the new breakthrough, aimed at controlling the spread of deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs

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