Uni of Manchester research shows infection outbreaks could be reduced

Material scientists at The University of Manchester, working in collaboration with universities in China, have created a composite material that can be used to reduce infection

Bacterial infection is a major issue in hospitals across the UK and has been rising. It occurs from bacterial adhesion, growth and proliferation on surfaces including clothing.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) infections alone killed more than 5500 NHS patients in 2015 and Government estimates put the cost of such infections to the NHS at £2.3 billion this year alone.

A substantial amount of research has been conducted to prepare novel antibacterial materials to reduce infection outbreaks in healthcare settings.

Precious metals, such as gold and silver, have excellent antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, but their commercial use in textiles is prohibitive due to extremely high costs.

This means copper is the material of choice for researchers as it has very similar antibacterial properties to gold and silver but is much cheaper.

Material chemists at the University of Manchester and collaborative universities in China therefore turned their focus to exploring the possibility of using copper as the ultimate antimicrobial agent.

The material scientists in the collaboration have developed a way of binding the composite to wearable materials such as cotton and polyester, which has proved a stumbling block for scientists in the past. Creating a durable and washable, concrete-like composite material made from antibacterial copper nanoparticles.

Prior to this breakthrough, techniques for binding copper to materials like cotton for medical and antimicrobial textile production had limitations.

Now, using a process called polymer surface grafting, the research team has tethered copper nanoparticles to cotton and polyester using a polymer brush, creating a strong chemical bond. 

The researchers say it is this bond, which has led to excellent washable properties and durability. These developments could finally see copper-covered uniforms and textiles commercialised in the future, and doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals could soon be wearing uniforms brushed with tiny copper nanoparticles to reduce the spread of bacterial infections and viruses in hospitals.

Lead author, Dr Xuqing Liu, from the School of Materials, said: “Now that our composite materials present excellent antibacterial properties and durability, it has huge potential for modern medical and healthcare applications.”

The researchers tested their copper nanoparticles on cotton as it is used more widely than any other natural fibre and polyester as it is a typical polymeric, manmade material.

Each material was brushed with the tiny copper nanoparticles, which measure between 1-100 nm.

The team found their cotton and polyester coated-copper fabrics showed excellent antibacterial resistance against Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and E. coli, even after being washed 30 times.

When compared with the traditional process of copper coating the polymer brush technique developed at the University is far more effective.

Dr Liu said: “These results are very positive and some companies are already showing interest in developing this technology. We hope we can commercialise the advanced technology within a couple of years. We have now started to work on reducing cost and making the process even simpler.”

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