WITS researcher Michael Lucas scoops international award for innovation in infection control


WITS university researcher and inventor, Michael Lucas took top honours at the recent International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva, scooping the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award for his Antimicrobial Coating Technology.

The technology, now in its fifth year of development, is a novel solution to address the problem of nosocomial infections. These infections, acquired during hospital stays, are a significant and persistent issue faced by hospitals across the world.

“Infection control is an ongoing challenge in hospitals. Surface contamination and subsequent microbial transmission are known contributors to this. My design for a self sanitizing surface coating serves to address this growing problem, and the results are very promising. These antimicrobial coatings can be applied to high contact surfaces where there is a risk of contamination, including medical facilities, food processing plants and public transport surfaces,” says Michael.

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 coatings are made up of various metals with known antimicrobial properties, including combinations of copper, silver and zinc. The uniqueness of Michael’s innovative way of depositing the coatings is a competitive advantage that WITS is protecting through a patent.

The development of the technology is ongoing, having started during Michael’s undergrad research project and continuing into his doctoral studies. Together with the now late Professor Ionel Botef from the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering, he has worked on further developments together with Professor Sandy van Vuuren from WITS Pharmacy and Pharmacology department. Financial assistance has been provided by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials (CoE-SM) and SITA Information Networking Computing UK.

“Research is a process of exploration and it's this aspect that appeals most to me. I enjoy problem solving and seeing the application of research,” says Michael.

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 in 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.

Commenting on receiving the Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award at the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control for his Antimicrobial Coating Technology, he says: “This is a medical conference, so to bring in an engineering aspect set my research apart. Most of the other innovation-related research presented at the conference pertained to hand hygiene and related technology. Environmental contamination and particularly surface contamination were agreed to be of high importance. I believe that the preliminary results of an approach to contamination control present notable advantages, which set my research apart.”

Michael describes the process of participating in the conference as an incredible journey, from identifying the conference as uniquely relevant to his research, submitting an abstract and being accepted, to the material and finally presenting it.

“My late supervisor, Professor Ionel Botef, was the primary instigator for this opportunity. His belief in me and my research has instilled the confidence to embrace the challenge. Winning this award is the culmination of the past five years of technology development and I see it as a stepping stone onto future opportunities.

“The next steps include verifying the safety of the coatings for the intended application and to assess the coatings’ efficacy in real world hospital high contact surface environments. This would be the start of taking the technology to market,” says Michael, adding that he sees an opportunity to turn his technology into a viable startup business.

Michael graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (Mechanical Engineering) from WITS in 2016. Before graduating, he was asked to present his undergrad research into biomaterials via cold spray and 3D printed polymers at the 2015 Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering (MIA) annual valediction. He was subsequently awarded the best presentation in the Mechanical Engineering programme by the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineers (SAIMechE). Due to the novelty and sophistication of the develooment, Michael’s Master's in Engineering was upgraded to a PhD research study under the title: Antimicrobial surface coatings via cold spray and 3D printing technologies, which he is currently completing at WITS University.

Tumi Ngqondo, Innovation Support Manager at WITS Commercial Enterprise, which assists WITS’ innovators with fundraising, business case development and spinning out companies, says: "We are delighted for Michael and look forward to supporting him as he takes the next steps to finalise development and commercialise the technology."

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