Potential Lifesaving USM Medical Invention Gets Worldwide Attention
News that researchers at the polymer science department at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) have developed a promising new invention to impregnate the surfaces of medical devices with antibiotics to prevent infections has made its way around the globe.
"The response was tremendous," said Dr. Marek Urban, professor and director of the USM School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. "I've been interviewed by news media in Australia, United Kingdom, and other European countries, China, India and even Iran. This news went all over the world. In the United States, it was published in Forbes magazine."
Why the big stir about a discovery that hasn't even yet been commercialized? The fact is that the development has the potential to save literally tens of thousands of lives. Each year, nearly 2 million people get an infection after surgery in the United States, and an estimated 90,000 people die. Both surgical tools and medical implants can be sources of deadly bacterial infections.
Urban, who invented the new approach, said infections at a hospital aren't related to unsanitary conditions. Instead, they are caused by the formation of microbial films.
"The idea here is to disturb the growth of the microbial films by attaching an antibiotic to materials either used as implants or surgical tools — anything that comes into the contact with the blood, skin or human body," Urban said. "Mother Nature is very smart, and is effectively able to replicate films to form a tight network. By action of antibiotics, we can disturb the formation of those films."
Urban's research showed that these penicillin-coated surfaces could effectively kill Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium responsible for the majority of staph infections.
The invention works by attaching antibiotics to extended polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), a material similar to that commonly know by the trade name Teflon, and it is used in cardiovascular and other devices. Attaching penicillin on a spacer, or "arm," to the ePTFE surface creates the surface that surrounds the bacteria, thus preventing formation of deadly microbial films. This approach can be used to attach antibiotics to surgical tools or devices like catheters.
"What that created, really, is a kind of penicillin that is free to move because it attached to the end of the spacer," Urban said. "When bacteria lands on this type of surface, it will be imbedded into this spongy penicillin surface that is very effective at killing bacteria. What we have developed is the ability to make antibiotics effective. One end is going to be anchored to an arm, but the antibiotic can move freely above the surface while being attached to it. This is a unique approach that hasn't been explored before."
The invention is receiving heavy international attention and for good reason. The 90,000 United States mortality count each year represents just a fraction of the total annual number of deaths throughout the world.
"Worldwide deaths from hospital infections are significantly higher," Urban said. "Due to the nature and importance of this type of surface modified with antibiotics, there is tremendous interest in this area because many people die of infections."
Urban said his research team is currently working on potential commercial applications. It is difficult to pinpoint when the products may go on the market.
"It's a matter of clinical tests," Urban said. "It's certainly a big step forward."
One thing important to realize is that many people are allergic to penicillin. So the coating used will be extended to different types of antibiotics.
"This is just the first study to show you can have antibiotics attached to the surface," Urban said. "We plan to extend to this to other types of antibiotics."
Another reason why it would be important to be able to use different kinds of antibiotics is that it is estimated that about 70 percent of the bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics most commonly used to treat them.
Other applications in mind are developing surfaces that can be effective against thrombosis (blood clots).
One expert says while testing is needed to prove the hypothesis, he thinks it is a promising discovery. Philip Tierno, PhD, the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and the author of The Secret Life of Germs, said it is a good idea to affect surfaces not only to have an antimicrobial in place, but also to disrupt bacterial activity.
Tierno said most artificial materials, when they are placed in or on the body, serve as a platform for the growth and proliferation of bacteria. "However, based on this paper, it appears that you can disrupt the growth of bacteria by coating the surface of devices," he said.
Details of the research discovery were published in the professional journal Biomacromolecules, a publication of the American Chemical Society. The research was done by a team of polymer scientists working with biologists and biochemists at USM with funding from the National Science Foundation.
Urban said a patent has been filed on the discovery.
"We believe it will continue to make a lot of news for the region and the university," Urban said.
Les Goff, CEO of Noetic Technologies, the marketing and commercialization arm of USM, said while Urban's research team is in the early stages of developing this platform, they believe it has a very broad potential application base.
"Since we recently went public with this discovery, we have received quite a bit of inquires and several visits to USM to look at this development," Goff said.
"Most of the people we have talked to are interested in taking the technology and applying it to their product."
Goff said this is just the latest innovation at USM that shows great promise. He believes part of the key to that is a multidisciplinary approach to research.
"Today, you can't develop technology without multiple disciplines," Goff said. "Most technology (now) taken to market involves a multi-science oriented team. Urban's work was supported by biochemists and biologists. The biochemistry and biology departments have come up with several other innovations as well."
Even though it takes time to get through the regulatory requirements for bringing a new medical product to market, Goff is optimistic the technology could be transferred into the marketplace at a relatively fast pace.