Published Wednesday, 03 October 2012
The process was created at Queen's University, Belfast. (© Pacemaker)
The new method uses a cold plasma jet to rapidly penetrate biofilms - dense bacterial structures - which bind bacteria together, making them resistant to conventional chemical approaches.
When the biofilm of a hospital superbug like Pseudomonas aeruginosa is penetrated, the bacteria within is rapidly killed.
The new process was developed by scientists in the School of Mathematics and Physics and the School of Pharmacy at Queen's.
An outbreak of the Pseudomonas infection was responsible for the deaths of four infants in Derry and Belfast hospitals some months ago.
Three babies died at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast in January while a baby infected by a different strain of the infection died in Londonderry's Altnagelvin Hospital before Christmas.
At present, antibiotics and disinfectants are used to target bugs in hospitals, but these are not always effective.
Professor Bill Graham, from the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen's, explained: "When bacteria congregate on surfaces they produce a kind of glue which joins them together in complex communities, known as biofilms.
"Instead of individual bacteria, they form a resistant film or layer and bind themselves together.
"This often makes it impossible for antibiotics to penetrate through and kill the bacteria deep within this protective layer."
Prof Graham said that bacteria growing like this, such as some of the hospital superbugs, are often more than 1000 times more tolerant to antibiotics and disinfectants compared to non-binded bacteria.
Dr Brendan Gilmore, from the School of Pharmacy at Queen's, said the approach has "the potential to control hospital superbugs."
"These 'cold' plasmas could be used widely in hospitals, surgeries and in the community as hand held devices for rapid decontamination of surfaces, including the skin, or be incorporated into bigger devices for decontamination of larger areas.
"Their ability to rapidly decontaminate surfaces has the potential to curb the spread of harmful bacteria, including multidrug resistant bacteria such as MRSA," he concluded.