The discovery of bacteria-resistant polymers is being hailed as a potential biomedical breakthrough that could be used to create coatings for surgical and hospital devices, reducing the risk of infection.

Researchers with the University of Nottingham tested the new class of polymers on the surfaces of some medical instruments and found that they effectively repelled bacteria.

The formation of slimy "biofilms" can result when the microbes pack together into dense communities, but British and U.S. scientists found that the new class of materials prevented the bacterial build-up by more than 96 per cent compared to commercial silver coatings.

According to a 2002 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the sticky biofilms account for more than 80 per cent of microbial infections in the body.

With the help of state-of-the-art equipment provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the researchers were able to screen thousands of materials at the same time in a bid to identify new materials that had the right bacteria-fighting properties.

'Non-stick' medical device

Morgan Alexander, with the University of Nottingham's School of Pharmacy, credited the MIT team with developing the technology that allowed researchers to narrow the search for the new class of polymers.

"We could not have found these materials using the current understanding of bacteria-surface interactions," he said in a press release. "The technology developed with the help of MIT means that hundreds of materials could be screened simultaneously to reveal new structure-property relationships."

The material has been compared by Britain's Wellcome Trust science funding initiative to the non-stick coatings on frying pans.

"Just as materials science gave us the non-stick saucepan, so we look forward to the day of the 'non-stick' medical device," said Ted Biano, director of technology transfer for the charity, which gave the British team a £1.3-million (Cdn $2 million) grant for their research.

Alexander noted that medical devices are often given toxic coatings to kill bacteria, and added that materials such as silicone rubber weren't designed as biomedical materials.

The full findings were published in the latest edition of the academic journal Nature Biotechnology.