Could salt be the solution to superbugs?
'It's surprising because it's so simple,' says researcher involved in product development
The solution to drug-resistant superbugs may be sitting on your kitchen table: salt.
Edmonton inventors have designed a salt-covered surface which is being used to fend off potent pathogens and help curb their spread within hospitals.
"It's surprising because it's so simple. We spend hundreds of millions — billions — of dollars that try to fight superbugs," said Brayden Whitlock, one of the researchers involved in product development.
Bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant, randomly mutating or adapting to the drugs designed to wipe them out.
This phenomenon has become a huge challenge for hospitals and other medical facilities, where superbugs can quickly spread from patient to patient, unchecked. A federal investigation revealed more than 18,000 Canadians contract resistant infections every year.
Whitlock says the salt-pressed door handles, taps, faucets and bed rails they've created could efficiently curb the spread of these dangerous germs.
They named their creation Outbreaker.
"We want to install Outbreaker in the healthcare industry, basically anywhere that hands can touch a surface," Whitlock, Outbreaker's vice-president of technology and development, said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
The products are the creation of Edmontonian Doug Olson.
Olson has years of experience in the meat industry, where salt is used to preserve meat and prevent the growth of pathogens. He thought they could be powerful germ-killers in a medical setting.
Olson built the first line of products at home out of salt licks, large blocks of pressed salt often enjoyed by cows.
"He saw a salt block and he thought, 'It's strangely clean and it's always staying clean outside with all those cows,' " Whitlock said, "and he thought, 'I wonder if it has some kind of antimicrobial properties?' "
That's when Olson reached out Whitlock for the science he needed to prove his theory.
They installed the prototypes in medical health offices around Edmonton and did some basic lab tests.
The results were astounding, Whitlock said.
According to their research, the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can only survive for five minutes on salt.
It can live for 90 minutes on copper and more than six hours on stainless steel.
"We devised some scientific tests, and tried to build a research program that would be rigorous and pass peer review, that we could get published in a journal," Whitlock said.
"And it turns out he was right. It has surprisingly good efficacy."
Whitlock said creators are in talks with administrators at the University of Alberta Hospital and the University of Calgary Hospital to have the fixtures tested on site.
And even as they begin testing their product for the rigours of the hospital, Whitlock remains astounded by how this common household product could be the solution to superbugs.
"It's so simple you wouldn't think it would work, and maybe that's why nobody had tried it," said Whitlock.
"[Olson] had a great idea."