New research from the University of Southampton shows that copper can destroy MRSA spread by touching and fingertip contamination of surfaces, setting it apart from other antimicrobial surfaces and shedding new light on how it works.
22nd February 2016
Frequently-touched surfaces in busy areas – such as hospitals, transport hubs and public buildings – are at high risk of community-acquired and healthcare-associated infections (HCAIs) caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA). Bacteria deposited on a surface by one person touching it, or via contaminated body fluids, can be picked up by subsequent users and spread to other surfaces, potentially causing thousands of infections worldwide. There were over 800 cases of MRSA and almost 10,000 cases of MSSA bacteraemia reported by English NHS acute Trusts between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 20151.
In previous Southampton studies, simulated ‘droplet contamination’ of MRSA – representing a sneeze or a splash – showed it was rapidly killed on copper and copper alloy surfaces. However, contamination of surfaces often occurs via fingertips, drying rapidly and potentially being overlooked by cleaning regimes, unlike visible droplets.
Dr Sarah Warnes, lead author of the new research2, explains: ‘Our latest research shows that in simulated fingertip contamination of surfaces with millions of MRSA, the cells can remain alive for long periods on non-antimicrobial surfaces – such as stainless steel – but are killed even more rapidly than droplet contamination on copper and copper alloys. Exposure to copper damages the bacterial respiration and DNA, resulting in irreversible cell breakdown and death.’
While the efficacy of copper – and a family of copper alloys collectively called antimicrobial copper – has been well-established through laboratory and clinical trials, the mechanism by which solid antimicrobial copper surfaces destroy bacteria and viruses is still being studied.
This new paper, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, demonstrates that MRSA die on copper surfaces by a multifaceted attack from copper ions and reactive oxygen species (ROS), but the mechanism is slightly different than previous results for Gram-negative bacteria, such as E. coli, where the ROS can convert to even more reactive, fast acting oxygen radicals.
Professor Bill Keevil, Chair in Environmental Healthcare at the University of Southampton and the paper’s co-author, explains the significance of these findings: ‘It’s important to understand the mechanism of copper’s antimicrobial efficacy because microorganisms have evolved various mechanisms to convey resistance to disinfectants and antibiotics.
'Our work shows that copper targets various cellular sites, not only killing bacterial and viral pathogens, but also rapidly destroying their nucleic acid genetic material so there is no chance of mutation occurring and nothing to pass on to other microbes, a process called horizontal gene transfer. Consequently, this helps prevent breeding the next generation of superbug.
‘By contrast, our work with silver suggests that this metal does not work as an antimicrobial to kill MRSA on dry touch surfaces, emphasising the unique antimicrobial properties of copper.’
Touch surfaces made from solid antimicrobial copper are already used by hospitals, schools, mass transit hubs, sports facilities and offices around the world to reduce the spread of infections, supporting key infection control measures such as good hand hygiene and regular surface cleaning and disinfection.
For more information on antimicrobial copper, visit www.antimicrobialcopper.org.
Hear Professor Keevil speak about the new research on The Naked Scientists.
- Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA and MSSA) bacteraemia mandatory reports. Summary of the Mandatory Surveillance Annual Epidemiological Commentary, 2014/15
Public Health England, July 2015
- Lack of Involvement of Fenton Chemistry in Death of Methicillin-Resistant and Methicillin-Sensitive Strains of Staphylococcus aureus and Destruction of Their Genomes on Wet or Dry Copper Alloy Surfaces
S. L. Warnes and C. W. Keevil. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 2016 10.1128/AEM.03861-15
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Copper Development Association
Copper and copper alloys are engineering materials that are durable, colourful and recyclable and are widely available in various product forms suitable for a range of manufacturing purposes. Copper and its alloys offer a suite of materials for designers of functional, sustainable and cost-effective products.
Copper and certain copper alloys have intrinsic antimicrobial properties (so-called ‘Antimicrobial Copper’) and products made from these materials have an additional, secondary benefit of contributing to hygienic design. Products made from Antimicrobial Copper are a supplement to, not a substitute for standard infection control practices. It is essential that current hygiene practices are continued, including those related to the cleaning and disinfection of environmental surfaces.