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Dragonfly wings inspire antibacterial medical implants

Scientists are seeking inspiration from plants and animals to create medical implants with antibacterial surfaces. The wings of insects and other natural surfaces have evolved the ability to kill bacteria on contact, and the experts hope these remarkable features can translate into healthcare materials.

In a new study from AIP Publishing, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has turned its attention to surfaces like dragonfly wings and lotus leaves that have natural antibacterial properties to optimize medical implants.

“Objects in nature have such unique features, like spikes sharper than a bacterium, which give them the power of disturbing and killing a bacterium, making them antibacterial,” said study co-author Saurav Goel of London South Bank University. “We can make these features with our ultraprecision engineering instruments.”

Many studies have identified various mechanisms by which natural surfaces kill bacteria, including chemical reactions, the roughness of the surface, or the ability of bacteria to rest on the surface. However, the commercial exploitation of these discoveries has been virtually nonexistent. 

According to the researchers, the lack of real-world application is partially due to the need for suitable manufacturing techniques that can produce these nature-inspired features with controlled accuracy on a large scale. Goel describes this as one of the major puzzles faced by 21st-century applied physics.

The experts are developing a new laser-based technique that can modify the surface properties of a material by manufacturing the desired features in a freeform manner based on 3D computer models.

Once the new technique is fully developed and refined, the researchers plan to create a prototype of an implant with an antibacterial surface.

“The end goal is a prosthesis that I can implant with clinical evidence that it kills bacteria and reduces the infection rate,” said study co-author Oliver Pearce of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England.

The vast majority of infections associated with implants are caused by staphylococci and streptococci. Eradicating their effect would reduce infections by up to 90 percent, according to the study authors. The technology would be applicable to prosthetics in all parts of the body.

“It’s simplistic to have an advanced surface that kills bacteria and to say that the infection problem is eradicated,” said Pearce. “It won’t eliminate all infections, but in my mind, it will make the rate significantly lower.”

The study is published in the journal Applied Physics Reviews.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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