Nanotechnology: Good things come in small packages

Nanotechnology is moving beyond the hype and R&D labs and into real-time application. It’s the big buzzword in industry today—but what is it? Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating materials at the atomic and molecular level to develop new or enhanced materials and products. In the metric system of measurement, “nano” equals a billionth and therefore a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is expected to have an impact on nearly every industry—and long-term care is no exception.

How does self-laundering and permanently antistatic clothing sound? Even better, “smart-clothes,” where nanotechnology is used to embed tiny electronics that can monitor the wearer’s health, deliver drugs at specific times of the day, and repair tears and holes in the fabric. The biomedical field is manufacturing artificial bone composites from nanocrystalline calcium phosphates. These composites are made of the same mineral as natural bone, yet have strength in compression equal to stainless steel.

Today, more than ever, infection control remains a primary concern in healthcare and long-term living. Textiles such as coated fabrics/upholstery products with “killing” (not just “blocking”) antimicrobial properties are becoming more desirable—particularly so because it is expected that more than 90,000 Americans will contract potentially deadly infections each year from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), with 18,000 being fatality cases. A staggering figure.

Over time the disinfectants, antiseptics, and sanitizing products applied in the healthcare industry to clean and sterilize has actually created the MRSA-type super bugs causing mutation, which, in turn, makes them more resistant to disinfectants,” says Mike Jobe, vice-president of CMI Enterprises. Generally, MRSA is most often spread from skin-to-skin contact and through open wounds. However, it is widely accepted that if you reduce the amount of bacteria present on surfaces such as bedding, chairs, benches, and gurneys, individuals are less likely to pick it up and pass it along. By eliminating the “surface source” in your infection control design and program, you’re, in essence, establishing an environment that offers a greatly reduced risk of bacteria/MRSA contamination from seating and bedding upholstery material. This is where the science of nanotechnology has recently become critical.

The silver story

Silver has long been known for its natural antimicrobial properties. By combining these with today’s nanotechnology, researchers and industry have strengthened, intensified, and vastly improved upon its capabilities. With nanotechnology, science and industry are able to employ silver and its natural antimicrobial capabilities at the nanoparticle size, otherwise known as nanosilver. The textile soft-trim and coated fabrication industry will have a direct and exponentially beneficial impact on infection control within the medical, healthcare, and long-term living industries.

How does this work? Silver, when activated in aqueous fluids, provides an antimicrobial action. Silver has a high affinity for negatively charged side groups on biological molecules. This binding reaction alters the molecular structure of the macromolecule, rendering it worthless to the cell or germ. The bacterium is either inhibited from growth or, more commonly, the microorganism is killed.

Silver ions at the nanoparticle size release and break open cell walls (e.g., MRSA) and kill the bacteria. It is nonselective and affects many different functions of the microbial cell, resulting in antimicrobial activity against a broad spectrum of medically relevant bacteria. For certain bacteria, as little as one part per billion of silver may be effective in preventing cell growth. “In the R&D process, our ‘eureka moment’ came when we developed nanosilver in a small enough distribution size that made it both very effective and not cost prohibitive. This made the surface area of our silver very large, thus increasing the killing efficiency,” Jobe says. “Silver at the nanoscale allows manufacturers to innovatively add antimicrobial capabilities to an ever-expanding range of products,” adds Marlene Bourne, president and principal analyst of Bourne Research LLC, Scottsdale, Arizona. The company provides market analysis on emerging technologies, products, and market trends.

“Even better, with this approach there’s a greater assurance of longevity and performance,” Jobe continues. “Since the germ-fighting properties won’t wear off in a short period of time, healthcare operations can confidently make the capital investment necessary for this kind of next-generation infection control.”

Frank Sylvester is President of Sylvester Solutions, a market and business development company. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a BA in business. For more information, e-mail or phone (570)489-1355.

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Long-Term Living 2008 November;57(11):32

Topics: Articles , Technology & IT