Anti-Bacterial Plastic Wrap Clings To Hope Of Stopping Superbugs’ Spread

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have developed a plastic wrap that repels viruses and bacteria, including some of the scariest antibiotic-resistant superbugs known to science. With the help of a scanning electron microscope, the researchers were able to watch superbugs like MRSA and Pseudomonas bounce right off the surface.

The wrap can be applied to things temporarily, much like that stuff you wrestle from the box and stretch over your leftovers. It can also be shrink-wrapped to any compatible surface without losing effectiveness. The ability to cover surfaces with bacteria-shielding armor could have an incredible impact on superbug populations inside hospitals. It could be shrink-wrapped to all kinds of things, from door handles to railings to waiting room chair armrests to the pens that everyone uses to sign off on receiving care.

Everything bounces right off the surface, including that classic blue testing liquid. Image via SciTech Daily

According to the CDC, there are more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections reported in the United States each year, resulting in over 35,000 deaths. These superbugs are most prevalent and dangerous in hospitals and other medical settings like nursing homes, and they’re especially threatening to the weakened immune systems of chemo patients, dialysis patients and anyone undergoing surgery.

The superbug crisis pivots on the point that antibiotics are a double-edged sword. As they fight infection, they also weaken immune systems, which allows antibiotic-resistant bugs to proliferate in easily-won battlegrounds. Doctors have little choice but to use more toxic and potentially ineffective types of antibiotics to treat antibiotic-resistant infections. On top of everything else, these drugs are often more expensive.

One of the first lines of defense for avoiding large-scale superbug threats in the first place is protecting the food supply. This fantastic plastic could really beef up sanitation practices at food-packaging plants where salmonella and E. coli lurk.

Lotus leaves, close and closer. Images via Lotus Rock and William Thielicke (inset)

The Lotus Effect

The key to this antibacterial trampoline is in the surface topography. It’s made of of microscopic wrinkles meant to mimic the lotus effect — that repellent property of lotus leaves that makes water bead on their surface.

Lotus leaves are covered with tiny pointed bumps that disrupt the surface so much that water is unable to settle and spread out. The tips of these bumps are coated in a wax secreted by the plant that furthers its hydrophobic properties. They are often described as self-cleaning, because the beaded water droplets carry dirt particles away with them.

The researchers say they also treated their plastic wrap chemically “to further enhance its repellent properties”, though it’s unclear what chemical they’re talking about. Hopefully, it’s something innocuous that acts like wax.

Door knob on the Ribe Cathedral in Denmark. Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber CC BY-SA 3.0

Where Did All the Brass Door Knobs Go?

Our more experienced readers might recall that we already have a kind of antibacterial door knob technology, and it’s been around for quite a long time.

Copper, brass, and silver all exhibit the oligodynamic effect, which means they are slowly poisonous to bacteria. Many door knobs and public surfaces used to be made of brass to take advantage of the biocidal effect. This would only go so far in the hospital setting, because the effect takes several hours.

So why aren’t all door knobs still made of brass? Who can really say? Tastes change, brass tarnishes, and people forget about the oligodynamic effect. C’est la vie.

MRSA black light poster via The Independent

Resistance May Be Futile

At first blush, this special wrap sounds like something we’d want to put absolutely everywhere, like all public surfaces and our phones. MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant superbugs don’t exist solely within hospital walls, after all. But not all forms of bacteria are bad — in fact, plenty of good bacteria called gut flora lives in our intestines. It’s an important part of our immune system that keeps us from getting sick every single time we encounter a new pathogen. If every public surface was covered in this stuff, we couldn’t pick up germs nearly as well because they wouldn’t stick anywhere.

From a practical standpoint, this stuff is only going to be useful if that special surface can stand up to the wear and tear of hospital environments without being crushed or worn away. It would also have to survive the frequent, rigorous, and probably bleach-based cleaning routines. One little scratch or ding in the armor, and you have a disgusting little critter crevice crawling with superbugs.

Let’s say this stuff is everywhere ten or fifteen years from now. Is there a downside to repelling so much bacteria? Where will it all go? Will it gang up? Would it mean an increase in airborne bacteria? And what about that secret sauce chemical they treated the plastic wrap with to make it more repellent? Will we regret exposing ourselves to it?

That said, the researchers don’t intend for this stuff to be the answer to the superbug problem, just a weapon in the arsenal. It seems to us to be worth a shot to use it in medical facilities, but of course, time will tell.

Main image via CTV News

45 thoughts on “Anti-Bacterial Plastic Wrap Clings To Hope Of Stopping Superbugs’ Spread

    1. Way back, red metals were the easy ones to cast- aluminum was not available until the late 1800’s- and held good detail in the styles of the time, as well as being easy to cast in thin shells for low weight. Easy finish work, easy machining, and a nice look sold it. As formed (pressed sheet) knobs took over in the early 1900’s, brass was still the go-to, as it forms easily. Nothing to do with control of bacteria. Pure practicality.

      Price killed red metals. Steel got cheap, pressing and forming steel into complex shapes became economical, and we had brass plated steel at low cost. The plating tended to hold up pretty well, but was generally coated (varnish) to minimize the need for polishing. Polishing, after all, would take the plating off. Essentially, at this point (prior to the 1950’s, but I don’t have an actual date. I would guess WWII pushed the tech and the baby boom pushed the price and supply volume), red was dead in economical household hardware.

      As time went on, more industrial looks came into style, and chromed looks, and so on, all of which are seen most in two basic forms: Stamped and pressed steel with plating (lower end) and more expensive cast-and-machined (higher end). There are other forms, but, specialty hardware aside, the traditional cast knobs and hardware are priced out of the general market, formed (pressed, spun, etc) red metals cost enough more than steel that they are priced out of the market, as well.

      Nothing to do with the state of CA.

    2. Yeah, yeah. Typical ignorant rant about California cancer warnings. Learn about the subject a bit. Be glad your air isn’t still full of tetraethyl lead and countless other ghastly things. The reason the warnings and regulation seem absurd now has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve been in effect for decades and have prevented a lot of suffering, making them seem silly or mundane.

        1. Av gas still has lead in it. So there’s still that. Wait until the regulations for brake and tire particles start kicking in. Electric cars aren’t totally emissions free, tires and brakes put tiny particles into the air that can get deep into your lungs. Places that are banning cars are already talking about what they will do about the “other” emissions when the ice bans go into place.

        2. Good point, I don’t set the prices for beachfront property (supply and demand seems to adequately do that) but I do quite often enjoy the walk on those very same beaches. I would not appreciate the state randomly putting homeless housing on an otherwise (semi-) pristine beach. Not trying to hijack the discussion.

        3. Why? Can’t homeless people have a nice view? God knows they need something to make life less depressing. If I were homeless I’m sure I’d take every drug I could find just to relieve the misery. My friend once lived on the streets. It’s miserable and exhausting. You’re often suicidal. You’re never rested. You’re always cold. Well, maybe not in California in summer.

          If there’s needles about, they need a needle exchange that gives out “sin bins”, plastic bins with a one-way opening that are permanently lockable after they’re full. You give in a full one, and get back a set of fresh ones. If the shelter is nearby to the exchange, or they even run the programme themselves, it makes it easier and more effective.

          Yes, people shouldn’t drop dirty needles everywhere. But plenty of homed people take drugs too. Millionaires have parties with dwarves carrying silver plates of cocaine on their heads (well, that was just one party Freddie Mercury apparently threw!)

          Nobody should be homeless to start with. We desperately need to build more property, but also to increase mental health care, making it easy to access and free, as well as social care, so when people find themselves in a crisis, they can be caught before they fall to rock bottom.

      1. regulations get absurd when they’ve served their purpose, but those who create and enforce these regulations would be out of a job, so they pile on more regulations and justify them based on the successes of the past. When your state adds a special fuel tax to fund “alternative vehicles” that are exactly the same sorts of vehicles the public are explicitly never allowed to put on the street (or now run on their own land if they’re once-licensed conversions) then you’re well beyond “silly”. Or when companies that are needed to produce the halo electric vehicles or much vaunted solar cells are prevented by regulation to ever make them (cannot use gold , required in medical and other “mission critical” boards) in this state. And even when all those chinese panels and indonesian circuit boards are brought in, if your factory floor gets too big and “uses too much energy” or noise or whatever (which is a big concern of Zero, the EV motorcycle manufacturer) you have to move. Even Musk couldnt build the gigafactory and make the critical Model 3 batteries here. Regulations should be taken one at a time for consideration. Not slammed whole cloth, nor defended with triggered derision because of past successes

        1. Buddy, you’ve totally lost the point of conversation. I believes we were talking about California cancer warnings not any of the below:

          1) Regulation ensuring that car “enthusiasts” don’t Dunning-Kruger themselves into a wall at 60mph after flattening their neighbor’s dog.
          2) Taxes promoting the spread of vehicles that emit less CO2, at the cost of ones that emit more.
          3) Making it quite difficult to set up industries that just pump out the nastiest fluorine chemical wastes like it’s going out of style (batteries and solar cell manufacture)
          4) Regulation deciding that factories don’t get special treatment, and have to abide by the same laws against being a dick to your neighbors that everyone else does.

  1. > The researchers say they also treated their plastic wrap chemically “to further enhance its repellent properties”, though it’s unclear what chemical they’re talking about. Hopefully, it’s something innocuous that acts like wax.

    The full paper says a layer of fluorosilane, via silica nanoparticles and (3-Aminopropyl)triethoxysilane. It seems that (3-Aminopropyl)triethoxysilane can be nasty but I’ve no idea how stable it is once bound to something.

    1. ⬆ This! ⬆ With advances in just the tech we have now we could soon see the automatic detection and identification of pathogens followed by the automated synthesis of the appropriate phage and or antibodies to counter it, all in a fast operating, cheap and compact device.

    2. Another thing that helps more than perhaps any other factor is single-payer healthcare. The EU has on average a tenth the exposure of US hospitals. Largely because of the healthcare culture promoted by commodified medicine, insurance company grifting, and the resulting emergency room abuse. Profitable hospitals also try and pack people in as much as possible/downsize or shuffle around patients to keep their facilities at an efficient state of full capacity.

      One of the only countries over there with worse MRSA rates is Israel. They have private insurance, too. Bacteria will eventually adapt to this plastic crap; It’s a perfect environment for developing adaptations to whatever they throw at it. None of this private healthcare scam works at all. This is only one a countless reasons that it’s inferior and simply must go unless we want generations of physical and mental drain all across our society. Well worth the extra taxes, imo, which would end up cheaper than compulsory insurance anyway.

          1. Sure, but you only need so many guns. The US isn’t really in any danger of invasion. Their military-industrial complex is out of control, I think because the arms companies are so hugely profitable, thanks to their hands in the taxpayers’ pocket. They very much want to keep that hand there, they have shareholders to please. Spending a part of that fortune on “lobbying” / flat-out bribing politicians, thereby creating a situation where there always has to be a war with somebody. So that all those $billions can save us soldiers’ lives!

      1. Many people have died waiting to see a doctor in “single payer” countries. Of course, they don’t get counted in the hospital’s mortality rate.

        People who take proper care of themselves have very little need for medical care, but politicians and other thieves still want to take their money and give it to people who are sick because they eat Twinkies and Coke. That’s injustice.

      1. The superbug crisis pivots on the point that antibiotics are a double-edged sword. As they fight infection, they also weaken immune systems, which allows antibiotic-resistant bugs to proliferate

        Um. False.

        1. Indeed.

          It’s mostly the result of misuse, i.e. patients not following the instructions, not finishing the whole course of treatment because some ideological lunatic said people should stop taking any medication as soon as they feel better.

          The result is a form of selective breeding which selects for antibiotic resistance.

  2. AFAIK Cleaning surfaces is a simple as a swipe of alcohol, or a mind bleach distillation. Antibiotic resistance is not resistant to chemicals. For airborne infections, I remember reading about a trial with an ionizer that resulted in complete elimination of airborn infections during the trial. Apparently the ionized air sufficiently damaged bacteria and viruses to destroy them. The problem with antibiotic resistant bacteria is what to do once they enter the body.

  3. Anti-fungal medications are the best-selling over-the-counter pharmaceutical products on the planet. Clearly there are many millions of people suffering from untreated fungal disease. It is. estimated that more than half of all nursing home deaths are exacerbated by fungal infections. Yet the entire industry refuses to acknowledge the existence of fungus infections. Doctors fail to diagnose them, research fails too do anything about them, concentrating exclusively on virii and bacteria.

    1. You may have a point, it is a bit like the mental health situation where they will not admit that they actually cure very few mentally ill people. The specific problem with fungus is the fact that they are more closely related to us so it is harder to find chemicals that disrupt fungal cell metabolism without also hitting a similar pathway in mammalian cells, however I am sure it is doable as it is all just a bioengineering and information technology problem at the lowest level, with the complexity being the current barrier to progress, well that and the denial you mentioned.

      1. Still, there are existing anti-fungal drugs. If they were used more, that’d stimulate research into developing new ones. As you say, it’s a solvable problem.

        Mental health problems might not be easily cured, though it depends, some are a result of life experience, some are organic brain problems, like schizophrenia. Although there’s some very interesting research into the role of the gut, and therefore food, in schizophrenia, surprisingly enough.

        The treatment for mental health is often about managing it, so the person can live life as best they can. Talk therapy gives them tools to manage their worse tendencies, and drugs apparently help, although SSRIs have been found to be no better than placebo in trials. The older stronger drugs work though, although they often have side-effects, though often that’s just tiredness, solved by taking them before bed.

    1. They were quite popular many years ago. Porcelain and glass, both. I have no idea whether they are better than stainless in this respect, but they were costly, fragile, and the glass ones were heavy.

      1. That covering may well just be antibacterial plastic. I believe that’s what Microban make. Supermarkets use it, and you can buy plastic products with it in, things like chopping boards being an obvious one. If it’s just plastic you could cover any doorknob with it.

  4. A shout-out for McMaster in Hamilton. I lived in Hamilton for almost 7 years, and stole one of their women.

    A bit more seriously, both my Dad and my wife’s Dad died from complications caused by superbugs. When that was going on, I tried to look for anything that would help, and phage therapy was on the top of my list. Phage therapy was used mostly behind the Iron Curtain, while the west mainly used antibiotics which are cheaper. Unfortunately, phage therapy isn’t (or at least wasn’t) being used clinically in North America. It’s harder to treat people with them because first they have to analyse the infections and then find phages that will hit that particular strain. With wider use, I expect that the selection process could become more efficient.

    The place for this new superbug-resistant plastic is in hospitals – particularly in operating theatres and recovery rooms, because that is the most common place for the worst superbugs to intersect with vulnerable patients and fresh wounds. Outside of hospitals, we encounter bugs and superbugs daily, yet very very few of us get sick from them. The majority of superbug infections are contracted in hospitals.

    1. Phage therapy is hard, and has a long history of poor success in the wild. There are a few prominent examples of reputed successes (Strathdee’s book being a big name one this year), but there is not a lot of peer reviewed, reproduced work. Many of the reports from the former USSR are questionable.

      As a side note, I am a case study from the late 1980’s. I nearly died from tonsillitis, resistant to EVERY antibiotic available, and was one of the first (maybe the first?) infection resistant to Ciprofloxin in the wild. Hit me when I was in California for grad school interviews, and changed my career path due to the hospital time and recovery time. (I missed my Caltech and by Cal interviews, and was non-compis-mentis due to the infection for UCSD)

      1. Phage therapy also has the inherent issue of reproducibility as the phages cannot be well standardized but mutate spontaneously, gaining or losing function. One of the dirty secrets that none of the phage proponents talk about.

  5. While surface treatments like this are interesting to help control,
    worth reminding that one of the major drivers of this problem is the overuse/inappropriate use of antibiotics.
    In medical situations 30-50% of antibiotic use in US inappropriate. (Wrong medication, not a bacterial infection, does not follow correct course of dosing, etc.)
    Antibiotics are used in many non-medical contexts (healthy livestock, soaps, consumer goods, …)
    Other countries antibiotics are over the counter, so probably even more misuse.

    All this helps breed resistant organisms.
    Misuse of antibiotics also remove normal microbiome, so resistant organisms have better chance.

    ZDogg MD, Dawn of the Diff
    a nice music video about perils of antibiotic misuse

  6. This is a despicable oversell on part of the marketing department of McMaster or the researchers themselves. There is nothing special about superbugs! They are actually even weaker against classical environmental challenges compared to normal bacteria since the antibiotics resistance has to be traded against something. It’s nice that they made this material but a) will it not be stable enough to last any practical use and b) will it not only repel the superbugs but also evil AIDS viruses, Zika, killer germs from space, nuclear zombie bacteria and plain water. What a joke! It’s a cool material, no question but there is so much fluff here, its shameful.

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