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Copper could be key to preventing antibiotic resistant infections

Time to get those copper bracelets back out of the attic! New research from the University of Southampton has shown that copper can prevent horizontal transmission of genes which is one of the contributing factors towards certain infections becoming antibiotic-resistant.

Ever since penicillin was first discovered as a magical panacea to cure so many illnesses, antibiotics have been a touchstone of medicine. However both the use and overuse of antibiotics has led to evolution slowly outwitting modern medicine and a whole new dimension of threat.

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in bacteria is largely responsible for the development of antibiotic-resistance, which has led to a new wave of infections such as the dreaded MRSA.

The paper, just published in the journal mBio, shows that while HGT can take place in on environmental surfaces such as door handles, trolleys and tables, which are made from stainless steel - copper prevents this process from occurring and rapidly kills bacteria on contact.

Lead author Professor Bill Keevil, Chair in Environmental Healthcare at the University of Southampton, explains: "Whilst studies have focussed on HGT in vivo (an experiment that is done in the body of a living organism), this work investigates whether the ability of pathogens to persist in the environment, particularly on touch surfaces, may also play an important role. Here we show prolonged survival of multidrug resistant Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumonia on stainless steel surfaces for several weeks. However, rapid death of both antibiotic-resistant strains and destruction of plasmid and genomic DNA was observed on copper and copper alloy surfaces, which could be useful in the prevention of infection spread and gene transfer."

Professor Keevil summarises: "We know many human pathogens survive for long periods in the hospital environment and can lead to infection, expensive treatment, blocked beds and death. What we have shown in this work is the potential for strategically-placed antimicrobial copper touch surfaces to not only break the chain of contamination, but also actively reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance developing at the same time. Provided adequate cleaning continues in critical environments, copper can be employed as an important additional tool in the fight against pathogens."

He goes on to explain: "Copper touch surfaces have promise for preventing antibiotic resistance transfer in public buildings and mass transportation systems, which lead to local and - in the case of jet travel - rapid worldwide dissemination of multi-drug resistant superbugs as soon as they appear.”

"People with inadequate hand hygiene could exchange their bugs and different antibiotic resistance genes just by touching a stair rail or door handle, ready to be picked up by someone else and passed on. Copper substantially reduces and restricts the spread of these infections, making an important contribution to improved hygiene and, consequently, health."

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