Copper can restrict the global spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, study finds

Also has a wider role to play in infection control

A study by scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK has shown that copper can prevent horizontal gene transfer (HGT), which contributes to the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant infections worldwide and growth in the number of difficult-to-treat healthcare-associated infections.

The research, which appears in the journal mBio, shows that while HGT can take place in the environment, on frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, trolleys and tables made from stainless steel, copper prevents this process from occurring and rapidly kills bacteria on contact.

Lead author Professor Bill Keevil, Chair in Environmental Healthcare at the University of Southampton, says: “While studies have focused on HGT in vivo, this work investigates whether the ability of pathogens to persist in the environment, particularly on touch surfaces, may also play an important role.

Rapid death of both antibiotic-resistant strains and destruction of plasmid and genomic DNA was observed

“Here, we show prolonged survival of multidrug-resistant Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae on stainless steel surfaces for several weeks. However, rapid death of both antibiotic-resistant strains and destruction of plasmid and genomic DNA was observed on copper and copper alloy surfaces, which could be useful in the prevention of infection spread and gene transfer.”

Keevil adds: “We know many human pathogens survive for long periods in the hospital environment and can lead to infection, expensive treatment, blocked beds and death. What we have shown in this work is the potential for strategically placed antimicrobial copper touch surfaces not only to break the chain of contamination, but also actively reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance developing at the same time. Provided adequate cleaning continues in critical environments, copper can be employed as an important additional tool in the fight against pathogens.”

Beyond the healthcare environment, copper also has a wider role to play in infection control.

Copper touch surfaces have promise for preventing antibiotic resistance transfer in public buildings

“Copper touch surfaces have promise for preventing antibiotic resistance transfer in public buildings and mass transportation systems, which lead to local and – in the case of jet travel – rapid worldwide dissemination of multidrug-resistant superbugs as soon as they appear,” said Keevil.

“People with inadequate hand hygiene from different countries could exchange their bugs and different antibiotic resistance genes just by touching a stair rail or door handle, ready to be picked up by someone else and passed on. Copper substantially reduces and restricts the spread of these infections, making an important contribution to improved hygiene and, consequently, health.”

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