Nanoparticles take a bite out of infections

08 July, 2017

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria that colonize surfaces and medical equipment are causing alarming annual rises in the number of patients becoming infected in hospitals and clinics. A KAUST team is working to reduce these numbers with a smart polymer that changes color and activates natural antimicrobial enzymes when bacterial contamination is detected.


Constant exposure to salivary bacteria makes dental tools, such as reusable X-ray imaging plates, ideal environments for virulent biofilms. One solution to this problem is to coat devices with polymers embedded with nanoscale crystals that slowly release silver ions, a broad-spectrum biocide agent. However, challenges with nanoparticle leaching, have thwarted advancement of this technology.


Associate Professor Niveen Khashab, her PhD student Shahad Alsaiari and colleagues from the University’s Advanced Membranes and Porous Materials Center realized that switching to gold nanoparticles could give antimicrobial coatings detection capabilities—these tiny crystals have sensitive optical properties that can be tuned to spot specific biomolecular interactions. But incorporating them safely into polymers required new types of nanofillers.


“Nanofillers are small chemical agents distributed in the matrix of a polymer composite,” explains Khashab. “They’re dopants, so they improve on the regular material and introduce new properties—in our case, making the coating antibacterial.”


The team’s approach uses gold nanoclusters treated with lysozyme enzymes that have innate defenses against pathogens, such as Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli. They attached these colloids to the surface of slightly larger, porous silica nanoparticles stuffed with antibiotic drug molecules.