Hospital cleaners may one day use ionic liquids to clean wards. Scientists at the Queen’s University, Belfast have come up with a new way to kill off bacteria, including the hospital superbug MRSA. In this era of finite resources in our health service, any development which declares war on the superbugs, is to be welcomed.
Many types of bacteria, such as MRSA, exist in colonies that stick to the surfaces of materials. The colonies often form coatings, known as ‘biofilms’, that protect them from antiseptics, disinfectants, and antibiotics. Ionic liquids are up to 250 times better at killing ‘difficult to treat’ biofilms. Ionic liquids are essentially salts which are liquid at around room temperature. The liquid can be sprayed onto a surface where it will kill any existing bacteria. Significantly, the liquid doesn’t evaporate so once it is on a surface, no bacteria can withstand the treatment. It continues to destroy any bacteria that arrive subsequently provided the ionic liquid has not been wiped off. The liquid has low toxicity but has not yet been tested for use in human treatments.
The development was carried out by eight researchers from the Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) centre, supported by a grant from Invest NI. The research has been published in the journal, Green Chemistry. The Queen’s University group plans to introduce commercial products based on the technology, and is also studying possible uses with humans, eg as hand washes.
The prevalence of superbugs in Irish hospitals is thought to cost the HSE about €200 million a year. Poor cleaning, overcrowding, inadequate facilities, lack of infection control staff, poor management and a lack of accountability have all contributed to unacceptable levels of infection and death within our health system. Almost every year, we hear of a new breakthrough in the war against the superbugs. It remains to be seen if ionic liquids will become the weapon of choice.