Think Like a Tree: How Shark Skin Can Save Us From Superbugs
The hospital can be a place to get healthy—and a place to get sick. Every year, two million people in the US acquire infections while in the hospital. And 100,000 people die from them, a number that’s increasing as widespread antibiotic use spawns more drug-resistant—and more deadly—superbugs.
Hospitals fight these bacteria off with hand sanitizer, antibiotics, and chemicals. But those methods aren’t enough to prevent every infection. So scientists are trying a different defense, by mimicking a surprising savior from the sea: sharks.
Smooth surfaces are more likely to collect biofouling organisms, whether they’re bacteria on a hospital room sink or barnacles on ship hulls. It’s that second problem that materials scientist Anthony Brennan was trying to solve in 2001. While helping the Navy figure out a way to keep its ship sides smooth, he noticed that sharks somehow manage to stay barnacle and algae-free. “By staying clean while moving slow, sharks defy a basic principle of the ocean,” says Mark Spiecker, the CEO of Sharklet Technologies.
Sharklet, with Brennan as its chief scientific officer, decided to put that adaptation to good use. As any fashionable cowboy or 1950s mafia boss can tell you, shark skin is made up of millions of nano-ridges, arranged in a diamond pattern. Turns out, this textured topography is good for more than a flashy two-step: In a process called mechanotransduction, the material creates mechanical stress on microorganisms. “These bacteria only live for about 18 minutes, so they can’t replicate,” Spiecker explains.
So Sharklet built a material for hospital surfaces that mimics a shark’s dermal ventricles. It takes the form of a thin film, which can be placed on often-touched surfaces like bathroom door handles or stairway banisters. This makes it more difficult for bacteria—including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like MRSA—to settle on these areas and infect hospital patients.
According to Spiecker, the Sharklet film can reduce the transfer of bacteria on a high-touch surface by 97 percent. That’s an encouraging statistic for the two million people who will acquire infections in hospitals this year, and for the nation, which will spend $30 billion treating them. And as the first product to stem bacterial growth with a patterned surface instead of antibiotics, Sharklet, which plans to go to market in the next two years, may not only mean fewer infections—but a fix to hospitals’ superbug problem, too.
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