Armor-like shark skin may offer blueprint for defense against superbugs

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: sharks. Just saying the word can send shivers down the spines of some, but as Hari Sreenivasan found in this report, studying their skin could be key to fighting diease and is on the cutting edge of the larger push announced at the White House today to contain superbugs.

It's part of our Breakthroughs series on innovation and invention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a Colorado laboratory, 1,000 miles from the ocean, a team of scientists is trying to use the skin of a shark to save the lives of humans. The company called Sharklet Technologies has invented a manmade material that, like the skin of a shark, repels deadly bacteria.

Sharklet CEO Mark Spiecker:

MARK SPIECKER, CEO, Sharklet Technologies: We use textures inspired by the skin of sharks to control bacteria on surfaces, no chemicals, no antibiotics, no heavy metals. It's really just the shape of the surface that the bacteria don't like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scientist Ethan Mann shows how the bacteria, in this case a common staph germ, has trouble both attaching and growing to the Sharklet pattern.

ETHAN MANN: We compare a smooth surface right now to a Sharklet surface. There's 10 to 100 more bacteria on the smooth surface compared to a Sharklet surface.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Spiecker and his team hope to bring Sharklet into hospitals.

MARK SPIECKER: We have got different kind of films. You can take those. Just peel and stick them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: They have created a textured film which can be attached to high-touch areas, like handrails and doorknobs.

MARK SPIECKER: About two million people a year get what are called hospital-acquired infections. That means they went in to the hospital for knee surgery or hip surgery and they ended up getting some kind of infection while there that they didn't bring in with them.

Of those two million people, we spend about $30 billion a year treating those infections, and 100,000 people a year die from those infections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A superbug outbreak has infected at least seven patients at a Los Angeles hospital, two of whom died.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Recent news about superbugs have brought new urgency to the issue.

The idea came from Anthony Brennan, a professor of engineering at the University of Florida. It all started 14 years ago, when Brennan was asked by the Navy to find a way to keep barnacles from attaching to their ships.

ANTHONY BRENNAN, University of Florida: As I was doing some evaluations for the Office Of Naval research, I came across this idea of the sharks, little nurse sharks, and I said, they don't get barnacles on them, but a ship sitting in a harbor at a dock will have that same current, and they get barnacles.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When Brennan mimicked the surface topography in his lab:

ANTHONY BRENNAN: Lo and behold, the shark's skin is very effective against the green algae.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brennan believes the complex texture on a shark creates a dynamic and unstable environment for organisms.

ANTHONY BRENNAN: Places that should get cleaned more, but often don't.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This fall, the company released a comparison study showing 94 percent less bacteria attached to surfaces with the microscopic shark skin pattern. This held true with multidrug-resistant staph bacteria or MRSA.

MARK SPIECKER: Some of the bacteria that are out there are resistant. They're the multidrug-resistant bacteria that are resistant to different antibiotics. We just don't want the bacteria to attach to our surface. And when they don't attach, they die. So, whether they're resistant or not resistant, they don't like our surface.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Of course, a much simpler way to control the transfer of bacteria is diligent hand-washing. Whether hospitals will want to spend money on technology for a problem that can be addressed with sterile washing procedures may be a challenge for the company.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Margaret Sande is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Medical School.

DR. MARGARET SANDE, University of Colorado Medical School: We find that hand contact, as clinicians are going quickly from room to room, is often a means of transmission. So the hand can be sort of the source of all evil as we then deal with devices that we use to treat patients like catheters, et cetera. Things that become invasive then become a portal for infection for our patients.   

HARI SREENIVASAN: An emergency medicine doctor, Dr. Sande says nothing should replace rigorous hand-washing, but when time is critical, it can be forgotten

DR. MARGARET SANDE: When it really is a matter of life or death, people are always, by their natural instinct, going to jump in, roll up their sleeves and act.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sande runs the university's Wells Simulation Center, where medical students practice on high-tech mannequins.

DR. MARGARET SANDE: Minute by minute, we're adjusting vital signs, we're adjusting lab abnormalities or the course of the patient, depending on what is done to the patient during that scenario.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last fall, Sande conducted a study with the Sharklet surface covering high-touch surfaces like the cart handles and drug vials.

DR. MARGARET SANDE: We intentionally had the staph aureus bacteria, which is a common bacteria, all on the leg of the patient, so that they started with a touch of the leg.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sande then simulated a pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest, the same scenario these graduate students were given on the day we visited.

DR. MARGARET SANDE: The patient became critically ill, and needed to have the defibrillator applied. And they grabbed that cart and they had to engage the defibrillator by pushing the button. We were able to prompt them essentially as the case unfolded to touch certain places in a given sequence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The surfaces covered with the Sharklet film retained fewer germs.

MARK SPIECKER: There difference between the Sharklet surface the non-Sharklet surface was about a 13-fold decrease in bacteria that transferred on to those surfaces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the commercial appeal of Sharklet surfaces remains unproven, the company has won support from one key backer, the National Institutes of Health.  They awarded them $1.2 million to further develop the technology.

I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.