A Conversation With ...Zoie Aiken

Division of Microbial Diseases, UCL Eastman Dental Institute


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A light-activated coating that can ward off infectious disease and keep patients safe? The technology is closer than you think. Medical coatings of the future are in the hands of today’s research scientists—like Zoie Aiken, a Ph.D microbiology student from London, England. This spring, she and her colleagues, a mix of chemists and biologists, presented their research at a meeting for the Society for General Microbiology in Harrogate, England. Between balancing lab work and researching literature, Zoie found time to chat with us about her ground-breaking work on light activated antimicrobial coatings.

Tell us about your research.

Z.A. My research is based on the assessment of new antibacterial coatings. Our current coating has been shown to kill 99.9% of E. coli bacteria when a white hospital light is shone on its surface to activate it.

What are some of its potential applications?

Z.A. The hospital environment acts as a reservoir for the microbes responsible for health care-associated infections (HCAI), and new ways of preventing the spread of these pathogens to patients are needed. Antibacterial coatings could be applied to frequently touched hospital surfaces to kill any bacteria present and help reduce the number of HCAI.

The coatings have a large amount of potential because as long as there is light present for a sufficient amount of time, the coatings will become activated. Once the coatings are activated, they are able to kill E. coli bacteria. We plan to test the activity of the coating against a range of different bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other organisms known to cause infections in hospitals. At present, we only know that the coating is active against E. coli. However, E. coli is more difficult to kill than bacteria from the Staphylococcus group, which includes MRSA, so the results to date are encouraging.

What would you consider your biggest breakthrough?

Z.A. Tuning the chemical properties of the coating material so that light available in hospitals can be used for activation. Similar technology needs high concentrations of UV light for activation, not present indoors.

What do you envision the coatings may be able to accomplish in the next five years?

Z.A. In the next five years the coatings could be applied to a range of substrates, which would increase the number of practical uses. We are already experimenting with plastic, so the coating could be applied to a plastic sheet that could be used to cover a computer keyboard on a hospital ward. The lights in the ward will keep the coating activated, which will in turn continue to kill any bacteria that may be transferred onto the keyboard from the hands of health care workers.

How about further down the line—say 20–50 years? Dare to make any predictions?

Z.A. In 20–50 years all hospital surfaces could be coated. This technology can conceivably be applied to glass, metal and wood or even mixed in paint. The potential therefore exists to coat many of the surfaces, including in doors, floors, walls, etc. These coatings have a great number of potential uses outside of the hospital environment, for example in a multitude of industries such as food preparation areas, bathrooms and in the home.