Penicillin was discovered in the year 1928 and people began to use it for treating infections in the year 1942. Over a period of time, the infections causing bacteria developed resistance to Penicillin. Since then, there has been a race to develop drugs to kill the drug resistant bacteria. We have been trying to develop new drugs faster than bacteria can evolve, but this is a race which we are losing. Drug resistant bacteria, also known as SUPER BUGS killed 700,000 people last year and by the year 2050, if we go on with the same pace, the projected annual death toll will be 10 million.
David Brenner would like to stop this. It all began with the death of his close friend, Paul Rice who underwent a minor surgery and developed a superbug-related infection, and he died. Paul was a healthy guy in the prime of life. So there and then, David Brenner declared his own personal war on superbugs.
David Brenner is a Physicist and directs the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. And as a Physicist, he thought of taking a Physics based approach to this problem. The first thing he thought of is that we actually know how to kill every kind of microbe, every kind of virus, every kind of bacteria. And that’s with ultraviolet light. He says that we have actually known this for more than 100 years. Ultraviolet light is a part of a spectrum that includes infrared, it includes visible light, and the short-wavelength part of this group is ultraviolet light.
Ultraviolet light kills bacteria by a completely different mechanism from the way drugs kill bacteria. So ultraviolet light is just as capable of killing a drug-resistant bacteria as any other bacteria, and because ultraviolet light is so good at killing all bugs, it’s actually used a lot these days to sterilize rooms, sterilize working surfaces.
But Ultraviolet light is actually a health hazard for people as it can damage cells in our skin, cause skin cancer, it can damage cells in our eye, can cause eye diseases like cataract. So you can’t use conventional, germicidal, ultraviolet light when there are people are around. So the ideal ultraviolet light would actually be able to kill all bacteria, including superbugs, but would be safe for human exposure. This is where David’s physics background kicked into this story.
Together with his physics colleagues, they discovered that there actually is a particular wavelength of ultraviolet light that should kill all bacteria, but should be safe for human exposure. That wavelength is called far-UVC light, and it’s just the short-wavelength part of the ultraviolet spectrum. While conventional germicidal, ultraviolet light kills bacteria it also penetrates the human skin and causes damage which could lead to Cancer. However, far-UVC light is perfectly fine at killing bacteria, but it does not penetrate into our skin. So far-UVC light kills bacteria, and kills them safely, without any harm to humans.
David and his team have been working on this for the past five or six years, he confirms that yes, the far UVC light kills bacteria and it does not harm humans. David says that he delighted with the result, but actually not very surprised because it’s purely the laws of physics at work.
We now have a completely new weapon and an inexpensive weapon, in our fight against superbugs. Far-UVC lights can be used in surgical theaters, in food preparation areas, in schools, in airports or airplanes, preventing the global spread of viruses like H1N1 virus.
Armed with the power of light, victory against the super bugs is actually within our grasp.