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Science Wednesday, October 3rd 2012 at 11:44 am

Plasma Jet Kills Superbugs In Hospitals, Safe Enough To Use On Skin

Superbugs, bacteria that develop in hospitals and are tough to kill with traditional antibiotics and antibacterials cleaning agents, are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide. Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast may have found a chink in the armor of these hospital-acquired diseases like MRSA, a drug resistant strain of staph infection that killed nearly 20,000 Americans in 2005. A blast from a jet of electrically infused plasma may be just what the doctor ordered, breaking up the drug resistant colonies, called biofilms, formed by many of these bacteria and making them easier to kill as individuals.

Biofilms are a big part of the reason that superbugs like MRSA are hard to eliminate in hospitals. A biofilm is a sort of fortress for bacteria, that also happens to be made of bacteria. Cells of a feather ooze together and conglomerate, forming a shell of bacteria on the outside of the biofilm. That shell takes much of the punishment that traditional cleaners like soap can dish out, leaving the bacteria on the inside untouched by a wipe of the rag.

Further complicating the matter, bacteria inside the protection of the biofilm also go into a sort of hibernation when they’re hunkered down. In this lowered metabolic state, they’re harder to kill with antibiotics, which rely on being absorbed into a cell to destroy it. If the bacterial cell isn’t open for business, antibiotics can’t get inside to do their jobs, rendering them ineffectual.

The plasma jet breaks down these biofilms by suffusing them with electrically charged, highly reactive gasses like oxygen and nitrogen, causing the bacteria to separate. Without their strength in numbers and with nowhere to hide, superbugs all of a sudden don’t seem so super. There’s still plenty of research left to be done, as researchers don’t yet fully understand why plasma jets and the ionized gasses they produce work so well to break up biofilms. The technique still need  fine-tuning as well; its safe for skin, operating at just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at low frequencies, but is more effective at higher frequencies that are too hot to handle.

Beating back superbugs is an important step towards making hospital stays safer for patients. Hospital-acquired infections affect millions of Americans every year, resulting in unnecessary treatments, longer, more expensive hospital stays, and tens of thousands of deaths. With superbugs developing at a troubling pace, any new weapon in healthcare providers’ arsenals is a good one. Especially if it’s something kind of awesome, like a jet of electrified plasma.

(via AlphaGalileo, study available at PLoS ONE)

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