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Hospitals of the future could be covered in shark skin

These microscopic ridges mimic a shark's skin. (Mann et al., Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control)
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Well, fake shark skin. A new study in the journal Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control touts the effectiveness of Sharklet -- a shark-inspired material that prevents the spread of dangerous bacteria.

Shark skin itself isn't anti-microbial. But its surface, made up of an array of ridges so tiny that they appear flat to the eye, is designed to keep organisms like barnacles from latching on.

In experiments designed to mimic the transmission of bacteria via both touch and sneezes, the researchers found that Sharklet was more effective than copper, which is one of the most popular anti-microbial surfaces for hospital use. While copper harbored 80 percent less MRSA -- antibiotic resistant bacteria -- than control surfaces, Sharklet showed reductions of as much as 94 percent.

Unlike copper, Sharklet doesn't kill the bacteria -- it just keeps them from adhering to whatever the surface covers. That's a pro and a con.

On the one hand, surfaces that work by killing the bacteria can actually help breed stronger superbugs. The microbes that manage to survive will reproduce, which can lead to the spread of bacteria that thrive even on a hospital's "anti-microbial" surfaces.

But this also means that Sharklet isn't really lowering the number of dangerous microbes in a hospital -- it's just keeping them off the surfaces that need to be cleanest. A Sharklet-coated hospital room won't save a patient whose doctor has failed to wash up between examinations, the researchers said in a statement.

One obvious application, according to researchers, is for catheters: The devices are a common source of nasty infection in hospitals, and a Sharklet-coated catheter would be less likely to harbor bacterial growth.