Self-sanitising coatings have potential to help curb the spread of Coronavirus in hospitals
An innovative Antimicrobial Coating Technology by WITS University researcher and inventor, Michael Lucas, could provide a supplementary sanitising solution to help control the spread of the novel Coronavirus in hospitals and other medical facilities but funding to get the innovation to market remains a challenge.
The Antimicrobial Coating innovation, which earned Michael the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award at the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva in 2019, was specifically designed to help mitigate the transmission of pathogens from touch-contact surfaces.
“Infection control has always been a challenge in hospitals and this is significantly heightened now with the current COVID-19 pandemic. My design for a self-sanitising surface coating serves to address the problem of surface contamination and subsequent microbial transmission which are known contributors to hospital-acquired infections.
“The opportunities for my self-sanitising coatings are real. The innovation is intended to be an effective supplementary approach to infection prevention and control and so would ideally work alongside existing sanitising protocols. The time between the cleaning of surfaces becomes a critical factor in potential contamination and subsequent transmission. By introducing a surface which has the ability to continuously work to eliminate bacterial, fungal and possibly viral contamination, we can reduce the chance of a transmission chain.
“With that said, the focus of my research and development activities, was specifically on these coatings as antibacterial and antifungal agents and a successful limited trial was performed to validate their efficacy. However, the metals successfully used in my antimicrobial coatings, particularly silver and copper, are known to be effective in eliminating viruses on contact. To effectively validate the coatings’ antiviral efficacy, proof of concept laboratory tests would need to be performed. . This would be the first step towards actionable implementation of the innovation as a means of combating the spread of the novel Coronavirus.
“Once laboratory trials confirm the efficacy of these contact killing surface coatings against the Coronavirus in particular, fast-tracked integration into hospitals, clinics and temporary healthcare facilities could then become a reality, provided the machine used to deposit the coatings is up and running,” explains Michael.
Mass production of the self-sanitising coatings would require additional facilities, but Michael says the current facilities at WITS University would provide a good start. Currently, the cold spray unit which is a key component of the process requires routine maintenance and is not operational. Michael and his team are in communication with the supplier of the equipment regarding possible solutions. Lack of funding has once again proven to be a limiting factor in getting the equipment up and running expeditiously r.
“The coating equipment is portable. This potentially increases productivity whereby surfaces could be sprayed in situ. Component size would be constrained by the spray booth dimensions of the in-house cold spray unit, thereby favouring smaller surface units. The benefit of focusing on small, high contact and portable objects, however, would help relieve the issue of high demand, as a large quantity of target objects/devices could be sprayed simultaneously. Thus batch production would be possible.
“Smartphones, tablets and other portable electronic devices are extensively used by doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, patients and the rest of the public and so they would be an ideal target for retrofitting with self-sanitising surface coatings. The use of smartphones at this time is bound to increase as people wish to remain connected with news, social media and each other. Doctors and nurses in temporary, pop-up healthcare facilities may be able to access patient files remotely using such devices and so to have a smartphone cover with effective touch-contact antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity would greatly reduce the risk of further infection transmission.”
Metal coated plastics are an emerging field of research and development with a wide range of applications. The distinguishing features of Michael’s research include the novelty of multi-step and multi-process additive manufacturing, through the use of cold spray and polymer 3D printing. These manufacturing techniques offer design freedom and manufacturing versatility. This means that manufactured parts can be retrofitted into existing hospital surfaces. The uniqueness of Michael’s innovative way of depositing the coatings is a competitive advantage that WITS is protecting through a patent.
The coatings are made up of various metals with known antimicrobial properties, including combinations of copper, silver and zinc. The most promising particle-embedded cold spray polymer metallised coatings were found to be effective self-sanitising surface coatings. Under simulated touch-contact conditions copper coatings on various polymer substrates, for example, repeatedly achieved complete microbial elimination within only a 15 minute contact period.
These tests were conducted under laboratory conditions against a variety of dangerous pathogens that are found on hospital high contact surfaces including a multi-drug resistant Staph strain. Thus, the potential of these coatings for the mitigation of surface contact transmission of infections was confirmed. Preliminary pilot studies validated this, using coated security access cards and a custom coated smartphone cover exposed to various healthcare associated environments within the University of Witwatersrand’s Medical School and adjacent Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital.
According to Michael, the self-sanitising coatings’ efficacy in real world, high contact surface environments in hospitals still needs to be assessed.
“I have been in contact with industry players in this field and they too believe in the benefit that could be gained by implementing this innovation into healthcare facilities. In terms of realising these opportunities, funding is the main limiting factor at present. This includes funding for maintenance, consumables and preliminary verification. Now, more than ever before, I would like to get this innovation to market,” he says.
Tumi Ngqondo, Innovation Support Manager at WITS Commercial Enterprise, which assists WITS’ innovators with fundraising, business case development and spinning out companies, says: "We see the tremendous opportunity for the Antimicrobial Coatings to be applied in healthcare facilities. These self-sanitising coatings would help to reduce transmission chains from being established between the cleaning of surfaces. This is significant in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, where sanitising protocols are highlighted as part of the solution reducing transmission. We will continue to work with Michael as he takes the next steps to finalise development and commercialise the innovation."