A targeted sliver of light may fight staph infections

June 10, 2016 Providence Health Team

Health care providers may get a new tool in their fight to prevent staph infections in hospitals, especially after surgery.

The tool is a narrow slice of light from the ultraviolet spectrum that can be aimed safely at the skin to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause infections.

Slicing up wavelengths

Researchers have long understood that ultraviolet light can kill drug-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. But it’s not safe to expose human skin to the broad ultraviolet spectrum because this can cause skin cancer and cataracts.

Researchers from the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center recently found that a sliver of the spectrum, an ultraviolet wavelength called far-UVC, can kill drug-resistant bacteria in hairless mice without damaging the skin. If the same proves true in humans, the wavelength could be applied in hospitals and clinics where surgeries are performed.

The findings show that far-UVC “has enormous potential for combating the deadly and costly scourge of drug-resistant surgical site infections,” said David Brenner, Ph.D., director of the research center and principal author of the study.

The danger of infection

While MRSA infections in health care settings are declining, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they still pose a serious threat to patients. A patient who is infected with the bacteria could suffer pneumonia, sepsis or bloodstream infections. These conditions can be deadly, especially for patients in a weakened condition.

Many people carry the bacteria without harm. The CDC and other authorities say about 1 in 3 people carry it on their skin or in their nose. But if MRSA invades the body of someone through an incision or another avenue, especially if the person is in a vulnerable condition, it can cause serious infections. Sometimes these require additional surgery.

Health care providers have been battling the risk of MRSA infection by doing such things as:

  • Emphasizing hand-washing with soap and water or with an alcohol-based rub before and after contact with patients
  • Enhanced efforts to clean rooms and equipment
  • Using contact precautions, such as gowns and masks, for anyone visiting a patient with MRSA
  • Asking patients with MRSA to stay in their rooms and out of common areas as much as possible

Next steps

Following the successful tests of far-UVC on infected mice, researchers intend to expand their study.

“One of our next steps is to explore direct studies in surgical settings, in larger animals and humans,” said Brenner. “From there we can investigate other new applications of these exciting findings, like killing airborne bacteria and viruses such as TB and influenza.”

Ultimately, researchers say, clinicians may apply continuous far-UCV light to a wound during surgery to keep dangerous bacteria at bay.

You can read the Columbia University Medical Center study, which was published in PLOS ONE, here. You can read a factsheet on MRSA here.

If you or a loved one will be spending time in a hospital, talk to your health care provider about how to be vigilant against infections. You can find a Providence provider here.

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