A team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed a new material with the potential to prevent some of the 721,800 infections estimated to develop annually in U.S. hospitals.
These findings are especially exciting for the medical world given recent efforts to curb the effect of infections on the health care system. It is estimated that one in 25 hospital patients develop an infection such as pneumonia or MRSA during their hospital stay. The prevalence and severity of these infections have made addressing them a major health care priority. Hospital-associated infections not only endanger patients’ lives, but also contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance; many of these infections are now resistant to major antibiotics, making them harder to treat.
Recent efforts to deal with infections involve behavior-based regulations, such as washing hands more frequently and following the proper sterilization technique for medical equipment. Other efforts have focused on preventing contamination on surfaces in the hospital setting, which, while harder to control, still has a significant impact. Antimicrobials are continuously being developed for incorporation into products, where they act to prevent the growth of microbes. While effective, these agents have their own set of problems. Notably, they lack permanence in their prevention of infection and have been shown to occasionally lead to resistance. These are serious issues that limit their ability to effectively prevent infection.
The novelty of the material discovered by the Harvard team makes it a more promising option. The team used a solid silicone polymer, the traditional material for medical tubing, and infused it with silicone oil. As a result of this combination, the material produced is slippery — so much so that bacteria cannot properly stick to the wall of the tube.
Similar surfaces, so-called slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, or SLIPS, have been developed for other purposes, such as preventing ice from forming on a plane’s metal surface. In fact, the group also generated a surface infused with tethered-liquid perfluorocarbon, which was found to prevent blood clot formation.
If these materials were to make their way into the medical setting, they could potentially reduce the rate of infection without much work on the hospital’s part. Many infections are spread in ways that are beyond the control of health care workings, so the ability to prevent infections on surfaces that are ordinarily difficult to control, such as tubing, allows hospitals to control the previously uncontrollable. In the medical world, where administrative burden is on the rise, simple technological innovations such as the Harvard research team’s SLIPS tubing bring enormous benefits