Robot Used to Scrub Virginia Hospitals of Bacteria

By AMY JETER | May 3, 2012

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, R2-D2 might have fallen for the newest member of Chesapeake Regional Medical Center’s housekeeping staff.

photo credit: Tru-D

Tall and canister-shaped, with a deep, digitized voice, Tru-D Smart-UVC literally lights up a room – with ultraviolet rays targeting bacteria.

The $125,000 robot is on loan to the hospital as part of a study. Chesapeake Regional and eight other facilities are testing ways to clean rooms so patients will be less likely to acquire infections.

They’re not the only ones looking to destroy hospital germs: Portsmouth-based EOS Surfaces has developed a countertop chemically designed to obliterate microbes.

About one in 20 inpatients fights an infection related to hospital care, and tens of thousands of people die from them each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The preventable infections waste up to $33 billion annually, according to government estimates. In recent years, Medicare and Medicaid stopped paying treatment costs for some types, leaving hospitals to foot the bills.

The federal government is monitoring the number of infections with an eye toward reducing them significantly by the end of next year.

Better hand-washing practices by nurses and doctors have helped. Now, the battle is moving to the surfaces of patients’ rooms: countertops, bed railings and table trays.

“Even if you have 100 percent hand-washing, if you go into a room and touch a contaminated surface, then you contaminate your hand,” said Dr. Billy Richmond, Chesapeake Regional’s director of infection control. “You may touch the patient, and that may cause either colonization or infection.”

The study at his hospital focuses on eradicating four organisms: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistant enterococci, multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter and Clostridium difficile.

Researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina want to determine whether bleach, quaternary ammonium, or ultraviolet light coupled with either substance does the best job killing off the pathogens.

Over the next two years, Chesapeake Regional will test each method as workers clean rooms after the departure of patients with infections or “colonizations,” where the organisms are present but causing no harm.

Infections are rare at the hospital: just 72 out of 15,604 patients experienced them from multidrug-resistant organisms or from Clostridium difficile between March 2011 and this April, according to Chesapeake Regional. No one died from an infection.

Dr. Cynthia Romero said she hopes the study will help the hospital further reduce its rates.

“We don’t want patients to get sicker,” said Romero, Chesapeake Regional’s chief medical officer. “We don’t want them to stay longer and have worse outcomes. We want them to go home once their treatment is completed and to stay home, enjoy, and continue to heal.”

Ken Trinder is working toward the same result from a different angle.

The idea of a self-sanitizing countertop came to him two years ago at a meeting about investing in bioscience technology.

Trinder, the CEO of EOS Surfaces, learned that an Israeli scientist had developed a way to infuse plastic with the anti-bacterial properties of copper.

He imagined a surface that attacked rather than defended, “basically a health care product, a medical device, that would actively resanitize itself, would kill whatever lands on it within a certain amount of time, and participate in creating a better environment for patients and people around it.”

Working with Richmond-based Cupron Inc., EOS Surfaces created a countertop that, within two hours of being touched by bacteria in moisture, destroys the cell walls of the organisms.

Preliminary tests are promising, Trinder said, and he’s in the process of setting up a clinical trial with hospitals. The company is seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to claim that the product is beneficial to public health. It will be on the market later this year.

“I’m a countertop guy,” Trinder said. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to impact on people’s health.”

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