Indonesian calamity inspires life-saving discovery

brian cavitt

Dr. Brian Cavitt,
associate professor
of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Imagine an additive that could keep staph from growing on painted walls in hospitals. Or prevent algae from invading in-ground water storage vessels. Or inhibit salmonella from growing on surfaces used for food preparation.   

A biofilm resistant polymer, or "germ filter," developed by Dr. Brian Cavitt offers those possibilities and many more. It works differently from current anti-bacterial materials because germs do not develop a resistance to it.

Birth of an idea
The consumer and medical applications are limited only by our imagination.

In 2004, an earthquake struck Indonesia, resulting in a tsunami and the death of approximately 200,000 people. Seeing the aftermath of the tsunami and the significant need for safe drinking water sparked an idea in the mind of Cavitt, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

He set out with a group of student researchers to produce chemicals that could be used to purify water in developing countries or during natural disasters.

What started as an attempt to purify water, however, turned into something entirely new - a biofilm resistant polymer that offers a wide range of applications both for consumers and in the medical field.

A change in plans

In preliminary testing, Cavitt and his team discovered that their product did not in fact kill germs, meaning it could not be used to purify drinking water. However, the material stopped the germs from reproducing or growing.

Through this testing, Cavitt and his team had discovered a new method to keep germs from growing on most any surface or material. The team has since demonstrated that the material can keep staph, strep, salmonella and bugs from growing even in raw sewage, one of the most germ-laden environments around.

Making it official

Cavitt filed the first patent application for his new polymer on June 6, 2008, while he was in Indonesia participating in social and medical relief work. On Aug. 16, 2012, Cavitt's patent application for new methods to keep bacteria, mold and mildew from growing on plastic materials was published. Under U.S. patent law, a patent application is granted the same privileges as a full patent until the full patent is granted or rejected.

Cavitt's invention goes beyond anti-bacterial products, such as aerosol spray and hand wash, to which bacteria, viruses, molds, mildews and algae often become resistant. Once they adapt, anti-bacterial products are no longer effective to kill them. Cavitt's polymer does not kill germs, but presents the germs with a surface that repels them.

"It's like offering me shrimp when I'm deathly allergic to it; I am going to avoid going to a restaurant that serves shrimp or other food that may have been in close quarters with shrimp," says Cavitt.

Real world application
Professionally, our work has moved ACU into a position of international recognition as a leader in the academic coatings community, especially energy curable coatings," says Cavitt. "Socially, the work has the potential to revolutionize how we approach 'germs' and will have extreme benefit to the health of the world's populace.

"The design of a germ-resistant surface that germs cannot grow accustomed to is a goal of many researchers and business people," says Cavitt. "The consumer and medical applications are limited only by our imagination."

Applications for Cavitt's polymer include interior and exterior paints sold at home improvement stores to reduce mold and mildew growth. This could be especially helpful for wall paint within hospitals and nursing homes, where germs are more likely to grow and spread. The design could also be used to coat surfaces used for food preparation to reduce the risk of food contamination.  

"The filter could be used anywhere there is human-to-object contact to keep germs from growing on the object and thereby reduce the likelihood for human illness," says Cavitt. 

Further applications include coating in-ground concrete water vessels to prevent algae growth, and coating water or oil field pipes to reduce organic build-up. "It addresses the major problem of subterranean bug growth in pipes." says Cavitt. 

"This design has the potential to revolutionize how we approach germs and will have extreme benefit to the health of the world's populace,"  Cavitt says. And that gives him a great measure of satisfaction.

"Professionally, our work has moved ACU into a position of international recognition as a leader in the academic coatings community, especially energy curable coatings," says Cavitt. "Socially, the work has the potential to revolutionize how we approach 'germs' and will have extreme benefit to the health of the world's populace. If maybe I'll have helped one child live, where before she might have perished, I'll consider all my research efforts a success," he says.

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