Synthetic shark skin could cut hospital-acquired infections

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Scientists are working on a way of mimicking shark skin to produce a sterile surface for hospital use.

Anthony Brennan from the University of Florida was initially working with the US Navy on the prevention of fouling, a problem which costs the Navy over $50 million every year in extra fuel costs.

Fouling is where algae, barnacles and other microorganisms colonise the bottom of ships increasing drag by up to 15%. Brennan noticed that unlike most slow moving ships and animals such as whales, sharks remained clear of any form of organic layer.

Dr Brennan's research team took an impression of shark skin and developed a synthetic, silicone version.

This consisted of billions of micropscopic raised ribs of varying lengths arranged in diamond shapes measuring just 25m across.

The skin roughly mimics the denticles seen on a shark which are akin to tiny teeth and act as both armour and reducing drag whilst swimming.

They found that when applied to the bottom of boats and ships, levels of marine fouling were reduced by 97%.

Following development, a colleague noted that the levels at which the skin was effective, meant that it was also capable of repelling bacteria such as Staphylococcus aurea, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli among others.

Where any untreated smooth surface would have some form of bacterial growth on it within hours, the synthetic skin known as Sharklet inhibits growth for up to 21 days.

This is claimed to be three to five times more effective than standard methods used on medical devices. The tiny denticles on the skin act in a way which interferes with certain signaling functions of microbes stopping them from multiplying.

The product could prove invaluable in hospitals where hospital-acquired infections now number over 600,000 a year in the US alone and are the fourth leading cause of death there. The company hope to start testing the technology in hospital environments within the next year.