Textile produces detergent-like chemicals to fight superbugs

Researchers have developed a textile that actively produces detergent-like chemicals that can kill highly resistant infections such as MRSA.

The team claims that its nanomaterial additive can be easily incorporated into existing industrial textile finishing for applications such as hospital drapes, bed linens and upholstery.

Using nanomaterials in fabrics is not a new idea, but current technologies generally rely on passive processes such as the natural antibiotic properties of silver.

‘We wanted to stay away from silver on its own,’ said Dr Syed Tofail of the Materials and Surface Science Institute at Limerick University. ’Although it is an excellent antibacterial material, it has some leeching properties and there are some safety issues.’

The researchers began experimenting with a group of transition metal oxides that display photocatalytic properties — that is, when activated by light they can split air-bound water molecules into oxygen ions akin to those found in many detergents.

The various oxygen ions formed are referred to in the biological context as reactive oxygen species (ROSs), which enter the bacterial cell and damage its DNA, rendering it pathologically inert.

‘It’s a physical-chemical conversion of solar energy,’ added Tofail. ’Let’s say you have a little bit of water at the surface of these nanoparticles; when sunlight comes, the water breaks into peroxide ions, which are common disinfectants — it’s a natural way of getting it.’

The team — which also comprised academics from Wroclaw University in Poland and Comenius University in Slovakia — investigated ways of incorporating various transition metals into fabrics.

‘The challenge that we solved is how to get them embedded in a tighter way without affecting their photocatalytical efficiency,’ said Tofail. ’There’s no point in making something very complicated that the textile industry cannot take on. We wanted to make it applicable to existing textile finishing processes, with a little tweak.’

Initial tests have shown that fabric with the team’s nanoparticles remains active against MRSA after 10 washes and, depending on the application, can be replenished by reprocessing. The nanoparticles are active with small amounts of diffuse sunlight or artificial light.

The project is part of the BioElectricSurface consortium, which has €5m (£4.4m) of funding from the European Commission under its Framework 7 initiative.