Exploring plasmas that control infection; save lives

November 17, 2010

It’s common to get medical care because you’re ill, but especially with the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, there’s a growing threat of becoming ill while at the hospital. As many as 99,000 deaths a year are believed to be the result of infections acquired in the hospital setting.

“Current clinical practice and available technology fail to address the growing problem,” explains Mark Golkowski, assistant professor of electrical engineering. With the help of a grant from the Center for Faculty Development, Golkowski is researching how non-thermal plasmas can be used to selectively kill microorganisms, providing an alternative to conventional disinfection methods.

“Plasmas, also known as ionized gases or the fourth state of matter, offer a potential solution for controlling infections and combating the spread of resistant bacteria,” he explains.

Non-thermal plasma technologies have the ability to sterilize surfaces sensitive to heat and chemicals and can also be applied directly to live tissue, he says. Plasma chemical processes have been highly effective in promoting oxidation, enhancing molecular dissociation and producing free radicals to enhance chemical reactions needed for sterilization and disinfection.

“The effect of the plasma is best explained as a form of low temperature combustion,” Golkowski says. “As such it is not possible for bacteria to develop resistance to plasma sterilization and disinfection technologies.”

Golkowski is collaborating with medical practitioners at Anschutz Medical Campus including Dr. Bruce McCollister from the Infections Diseases Division and Dr. Jori Leszcznski, director of the Office of Laboratory Animals. “The consolidated CU Denver campus provides a unique environment for collaboration,” he notes.

Because the development and approval of a clinical product will require a multi-year research effort, Golkowski says that the results from this study will be a key requirement to applying for subsequent funding from the National Institute of Health.

“If the technology is determined to be suitable for the clinical setting, the potential impact in combating infections stands to be very significant,” he stresses.