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Can Bioactive Metals Decrease the Spread of Illness?

Contact with contaminated surfaces is one of the most common ways for illness to spread. A person carrying a pathogen touches something, like a doorknob, then another person touches that object and they can be infected by that pathogen. In between these contacts, the pathogen has to survive on the object, and in a large enough quantity to infect another person. Dustin Gilbert, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, wants to make it impossible, or at least unlikely, for pathogens to survive on a surface.

“If you come into contact with a surface containing pathogens, you could get sick from it, so it’s important to have surfaces that are inhospitable environments for pathogens so they just die quickly rather than being picked up and infecting another person,” said Gilbert.

Most commonly used surfaces are not good at killing pathogens. Pathogens on stainless steel, for example, can take up to five days to die on the surface; on cloth surfaces the timeframe is closer to weeks. However, there are a variety of metals that do a great job killing pathogens. Historically, colloidal silver and brass have both been used for their anti-pathogenic properties. Gilbert’s team wants to leverage the naturally occurring anti-pathogenic properties of these metals to create a more thoroughly inhospitable surface.

“Our idea was to take several of these bioactive metals and put them together into an alloy so effective that whatever pathogen lands on the surface will be attacked my multiple modes of action thanks to the properties of the individual metals,” said Gilbert. “Our goal is to protect against a broader spectrum of pathogens and kill them faster.“

Traditionally, testing these alloys would be a lengthy, laborious process in which each composition is fabricated one piece at a time and tested individually. To overcome this issue Gilbert leveraged his experience in nanotechnology to develop a nanoscale film, enabling him to test thousands of compositions in a single sample.

His team collaborated with Thomas Denes, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at UTIA, and Anne Murray, a postdoc in Ecology and Environmental Biology, to conduct pathogen testing on the various alloy compositions. Once complete, the team came together to develop an understanding of the ways in which materials science and biology can work together to address pathogens. The results have been promising and the teams have a joint publication in progress.

Gilbert has also worked with his ORNL collaborators, Ying Yang and Easo George in the Alloy Behavior and Design Group, to develop a better understanding of high entropy alloys like those used in his project. Next, he wants to determine which of the alloys that most effectively kill pathogens can be manufactured in bulk. Additionally, Gilbert is generating a proposal for NSF based on the preliminary findings from this work.