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Graphene Oxide's Antibacterial Properties May Help Combat Hospital Acquired Infections

5 March 2016, 4:45 am EST By Katrina Pascual Tech Times
Researchers in Italy explored the potential antibacterial and antifungal action of graphene oxide. Shown above are confocal images (20x) of S. aureus bacteria trapped in graphene oxide aggregates formed after incubation in saline solution.  ( Valentina Palmieri )

Could humans soon tap the benefits of graphene oxide to fight hospital-bred infections?

A team of scientists in Italy highlighted the antibacterial and antifungal action of graphene oxide, a carbon-derived compound that could one day be used to coat catheters and medical tools to decrease infections while reducing the need for antibiotics.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, as described in a 2010 Nobel Prize-winning work. Its unique properties make it a promising component of batteries, electronics, and manufacturing devices in the future - and even help precisely model the behavior of black holes and supernovas.

"We want to make materials that will help patients and medical professionals," says biotechnologist and study author Valentina Palmieri of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome.

Graphene oxide works against infection by annihilating the bacteria before it enters the body. It wraps around the bug and punctures its membrane, which prevents it from growing and even induces its death. This way, according to Palmieri, the bacteria lose their intricate structure and die.

The team used graphene oxide because of its high stability in water solutions. And since it is made up of carbon or the building block of life, the material is much less toxic to human cells versus any medicinal antimicrobial treatment.

Palmieri added, however, that it remains unclear why graphene attacks bacterial cells yet remains friendly to human cells. It is speculated that the evolution of mammalian cells' repair mechanisms enables them to survive the oxidation damage induced by the material.

Graphene, too, is said to have eco-friendly qualities, it serves as an alternative to many traditional infection-fighting methods such as tools coated with silver, which is a toxic substance.

And here's a way to increase the compound's effectiveness: pair it with salt.

The researchers suggested mixing a 300-nanometer sheet of graphene oxide solution with low molarity (<10mM) Calcium chloride. Too little salt would spare the bacteria, while too much renders the graphene unable to puncture the bacterial membrane.

To test the mixture's effectiveness, the researchers decided to do away with the usual spectrophotometer for looking at whether the solution has killed all bacteria. Instead, they used two light wavelengths to check, namely one sensitive to absorbing and another that detects scattering.

They will next test graphene oxide's antifungal action, hurdling the challenge of fungi being too big for the material to wrap around them. The salt content would likely be adjusted to solve the matter, shares Palmieri.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Los Angeles this week.

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