UBC researchers create bacteria-killing material for retrofitting on high contact surfaces

A UBC research team has developed copper-coated technology to kill bacteria — perfect for use in hospitals, campuses or even on your phone case.

This past spring, UBC materials engineering professor Dr. Amanda Clifford partnered with mining company Teck Materials to install adhesive copper patches in nine UBC Applied Science buildings. The patches take advantage of copper’s inherent anti-microbial properties, killing over 99 per cent of bacteria within hours of contact.

In parallel, Clifford’s lab at UBC was working on an even more potent project that halves the amount of time it takes to kill thick-walled, or gram-positive, bacteria.

The team’s engineered copper coating is reinforced with nano-bumps that rupture bacterial cell walls. It also combines copper with zinc, another antibacterial element that can kill bacteria more quickly than either element alone.

In July, Clifford and colleagues published their findings in Advanced Materials Interfaces and filed a provisional patent for the coating.

In the future, the UBC researchers plan on bringing the coating to the commercial market: their paper describes the process of fabrication as a “low-cost and scalable route” with potential for widespread adoption.

Their copper-based material was formulated with ease of use in mind since the coatings can be glued onto existing surfaces. Clifford even has a copper patch adhered to the back of her phone.

Now that her team’s experimental design has been tested with anti-bacterial properties, they are moving to test the coating’s anti-viral potential. This will hopefully expand the scope of the material’s usefulness, as Clifford and her team continue to test and optimize their engineered copper.

“Copper has been registered as antiviral metal, but we want to see how our material works,” said Clifford.

Clifford’s team plans on placing the engineered coating in hospital settings to combat the spread of viruses.

Gram-positive bacteria, like the colon-infecting Clostridioides difficile, are “a major source of infection within hospitals,” Clifford said.

Reported case fatality rates for C. difficile infections have ranged from 6 to 30 per cent. The UBC researchers’ copper-based attachment could prevent patients in hospitals from contracting these types of infections.

The engineered copper could also target the harmful evolution of bacteria, viruses and fungi, also known as antimicrobial resistance.

During an infection, microbes which are resistant to the body’s immune defences and medical treatments survive and reproduce. During this process, the resulting population can become more contagious, more deadly and harder to kill.

“We’re going to be in a very bad position globally if pathogens … or bacteria continue to become resistant to antibiotics,” she said.

The traditional solution to evolving pathogens, Clifford explained, is to continue generating new antibiotics that target new generations of harmful microbes. Installing surfaces that kill bacteria immediately is one novel way to prevent microbial populations from evolving at all.

From guardrails to faucets, doorknobs and even stethoscopes, this UBC team-led copper coating has the potential to kill bacteria on many of the most highly-trafficked surfaces within a hospital to radically reduce human contact with germs.