Published: Aug 13, 2010 10:26 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 13, 2010 7:26 PM EDT

ALBANY, NY, - Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have combined the very new with the very old to develop a paint that can kill even the most resistant bacteria.

Hospitals around the world spend billions of dollars a year to maintain sterile environments. Medical equipment, bedding, floors and all hard surfaces, especially in operating theatres, must be kept as clean as possible. Even the walls can harbor bacteria, although scientists at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in New York say they have developed a new kind of paint that can solve the problem.

The researchers have developed a coating that combines naturally occurring enzymes with nanoparticles. Enzymes occur naturally in all living organisms to regulate their various chemical processes, like digestion or the killing of disease-causing mico-organisms such as bacteria.

Jonathan Dordick is a professor of bio and chemical engineering.

"Our focus has been on looking at a technology that allows us to have essentially any surface and make it anti-bacterial or anti-microbial in general. What we want to do is essentially use what nature uses," he said.

Dordick says that by attaching the enzymes to nanoparticles and then adding them paint, the researchers have been able to create a bacteria-resistant surface that would never have to be cleaned. The team's laboratory test results also show that the anti-bacterial paint is far more effective in sterilizing a surface, than conventional cleaning.

"Obviously everything has been done in a lab so far so there is still a translation to the commercial side. But in the laboratory it is quite effective so, for example, you take this enzyme on the nano material and you contact it with a million cells per millimeter, which is a pretty good concentration within several hours you are down to zero, it kills them all.", said Dordick.

Dordick believes that commercialization of bacteria-resistant paint is a realistic possibility in the near future. The enzymes, which are naturally occurring, are easily produced. As for attaching them to nanopartices on a commercial scale, Dordick says that advances in nanotechnology research should make it possible in five years.

The research is especially promising for places like operating theatres where bacteria-free surfaces are essential.

"Organisms are unable to develop a resistance against these enzymes. Why? we are not 100 percent sure. Part of it has to be the way they kill the cells. And as organisms develop a resistance to those mechanisms they would actually end up causing the cell to fall apart on its own. It's a unique approach. We believe that using these materials will not lead to any significant resistance."

Dordick says the anti-bacterial paints and coatings will have application far beyond the world of healthcare. He says the food-processing industry where hygiene and cleanliness are important to food safety could also benefit from the technology.