Friday, February 12, 2010

Shark skin used to keep germs at bay

You expect the hospital to be one of the cleanest places around. But it can actually be a safe haven for super germs that can get you very, very sick. These germs are so hard to treat that scientists are now looking to the sea for solutions.

Sharks are considered to be some of the most dangerous creatures on earth. Now, they're unlocking a biological marvel that might just save your life. But to understand how, you must first search out creatures you can't see like tiny barnacles, algae and bacteria.

Microscopic creatures are essential to our environment. They collect on the bottom of boats and ships and require an expensive cleaning in dry dock.

To cut the cost and frequency of that, the Office of Naval Research turned to the University of Florida and Dr. Anthony Brennan for help.

"We've always fought mother nature," said Brennan.

He set out to make a film in his Gainesville lab that could be applied to a ship's hull to stop the slimy growth.

"I just wanted to understand how does Mother Nature use energy to answer, `is a cell going to go on a surface or is the cell not going to go on a surface?'"

His answer would eventually come from deep in the ocean – from the pattern on the skin of a shark. That's because he realized slow moving sharks stay clean, while slow moving ships do not.

"We actually used dental impression material, took a pattern of a shark – a live sark and then I looked at it in a microscope," said Brennan.

What he saw was similar to three dimensional diamond shaped areas with channels in between. Brennan embedded that patter in a flexible sheet, and that's how "Sharklet" was spawned.

It didn't take long for Brennan to discover that his new product's pattern wouldn't just help clean ships. It could also keep deadly, disease causing bacteria like E-coli and MRSA from growing.

While it may be years before the film is placed on active duty military ships. It's ready for use in hospitals.

"We've already tested in ICU's," said Brennan. "We're finding this surface strongly inhibits any of the bacteria the hospitals do find. So if there are areas that are more difficult to keep clean on a regular basis – we feel this has a great opportunity to help those areas."

Doctor Brennan says they're now testing his product on medical devices that go inside the body, like bladder catheters and implants.

However, because military ships have to be ready for battle at any moment – they'll test "Sharklet" on vessels like cruise ships, first.

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