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The latest in health: Fighting flu with new ways to disinfect, plus testing a universal vaccine

North Devon Council
Children use a type of UV light to see how well they've cleaned their hands.

This time on "Take Care," how technology meets cleanliness when it comes to fighting the flu with light and electrostatic sprayers. Plus, we'll talk to the lead on a trial out of Rochester testing a universal flu vaccine.

UV light that's safe for all-day disinfectant use

"We wanted to take advantage of the incredible microbial killing power of UV light, but to try to do it safely."

UV light isn't the safest light out there. It's harmful to humans, after all. Dr. David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University is working to use a certain type of UV light to kill the flu virus, and he's trying to do it in a safe way.

Brenner explained that ultra-violet light has been used throughout several centuries because of its disinfectant qualities.

“It’s extremely efficient at killing all microbes -- that means bacteria and viruses -- but basically it damages the DNA in the bacteria and the viruses and kills them,” Brenner said.

Brenner has been researching ways to apply the disinfectant quality of UV light and apply it to preventative influenza measures. He said the trouble becomes when the UV is dangerous for humans to be around.

“The issue in general is that while that sounds really good that UV light can do this, it’s also a health hazard for us,” Brenner said. “It causes skin cancer. It causes cataracts in the eyes. So you can’t use these UV lamps when people are around.”

Brenner said this pitfall is what inspired his research.

“We wanted to try and get the best of both worlds,” Brenner said. “We wanted to take advantage of the incredible microbial killing power of UV light, but to try to do it safely.”

Brenner’s research focuses largely on the use of far UV-C light, which is among the lowest wavelengths in the ultra-violet spectrum. Far UV-C light is strongly absorbed by biological materials, so if it comes on any biological surface like human skin, it cannot penetrate the outer layer or reach the living cells under the skin.

“What’s different about microbes—bacteria and viruses—is they are really, really, really small, and much smaller than the cells of [our skin]…so this far UV-C can penetrate and kill them, which is what we want,” Brenner said. “That’s why we think we have the best of both worlds. We have the killing power of ultra-violet light, but we have safety as well.”

UV-C light is very efficient at killing both bacteria and viruses, Brenner said, making it optimal for medical applications.

“If you have it on in an operating room overnight, you will really kill almost every possible bacterium in the room,” Brenner said. “So it’s very efficient indeed…We wanted to take advantage of that efficiency.”

Brenner said that one of the most important applications of this kind of technology would be in combatting the spread of the flu virus, which infects hundreds each year.

“Influenza is generally passed from person to person through the air by somebody coughing or sneezing,” Brenner said. “What we would like to do is have lamps in rooms…[With] these far U- C lamps, we would hope to be able to kill those influenza viruses before they reached you.”

These UV-C lamps could be used in practically any public place where a lot of people are gathered together and could potentially spread bacteria. Brenner said one area on which he focuses is air travel.

“We all know about pandemic epidemics, where the virus actually jumps country to country,” Brenner said. “Those are transmitted essentially through airplane travel. So if you could kill the bugs in the air in airports and airplanes, perhaps you could take a bite out of the pandemics.”

Brenner said that one of the biggest concerns he received when his research went public was the worry that this far UV-C light would adversely affect the human microbiome—the healthy bacteria that exists in places like the stomach.

Brenner said that the bacteria inside the human body are largely protected because, as previously mentioned, it cannot penetrate the surface of the skin. There are some healthy bacteria that live on the surface of the skin, the kind that humans can scrub off when they wash their hands, shower often, or use hand sanitizer.

“The way they basically survive is they cluster together,” Brenner said. “These clusters or groups of bacteria, they self-protect from far UV-C light…We think that far UV-C light is actually going to be doing far less damage to the skin microbiome than we already do…So we don’t think it’s going to be a major issue.”

Before the technology can be widely used, Brenner said there are three main areas that their research still has to tackle, the first being safety.  

“Everything we’ve done suggests that it is safe,” Brenner said. “That said, as I said, we need to more certain than certain about safety, so I would like another year’s worth of studies on the safety aspect.”

The next piece, Brenner said, is efficacy.

“Does it actually work?” Brenner said. “I think that is reasonably clear.”

Lastly, Brenner said the end product has to be practical and inexpensive.

“Right now, if you were to buy one of these lamps, [it would cost] perhaps a thousand dollars,” Brenner said. “That’s too much if you want to put them next to conventional lights. But you would expect that once they start being manufactured in large quantities, the price would shoot down.”

Electrostatic spray: For tans, crops and flu germs

Katherine Velez is a senior scientist at Clorox Professional where she supports clinical studies and product development for electrostatic spray and other technology.

Electrostatic spraying is the process of applying a charged liquid to a surface. Solutions have a charge that is induced on the molecules as they leave the nozzle. The result is a charged cloud that then induces an opposite charge on the surfaces with which it comes into contact. These two charges attract, leading to a complete and even coverage of the surface with disinfectants.

"The idea here is to eliminate the environment as a source of infection."

Velez said that the results are similar to current disinfectants that are already used in many different areas, with a beneficial difference.

“What’s different is that you’re applying the solutions to the surfaces more evenly, more uniformly, and you’re able to get hard-to-reach surfaces or places you might have trouble disinfecting manually,” Velez said.

Velez said that electrostatic technology, which has already been employed in areas like powder-coating cars, distributing pesticides, or tanning salons, has only recently been applied to the cleaning industry.

Clorox Professional, Velez said, recognized that this technology can be used in professional cleaning anywhere someone needs a quick and easy cleaning solution. Velez said that this application is especially important for educators and professionals.

“We recognize that one of the big challenges for schools and businesses in particular and also hospitals is they’re worried about things like fighting the flu,” Velez said. “Essentially what we’re trying to do is give them the solution that can help them cover those surfaces more quickly.”

Velez said Clorox Professional’s electrostatic spraying system can cover up to 18,000 square feet per hour, meaning it cover an average classroom in as little as three minutes. She also said that the system helps to prevent schools from losing a collective $4.2 billion per year from cold and flu.

The largest area of interest the company gets, Velez said, is athletics, like locker rooms and other sports facilities.

“There’s really no limit to where you can use it,” Velez said. “Anywhere that you have a concern about infection, where people gather…this system can be used in those spaces…You could certainly envision expanding out into different areas as well.”

As effective as the technology is, Velez said it is still important for facilities to continue to disinfect manually, using the Clorox Professional system about 1-2 times daily.

“The idea here is to eliminate the environment as a source of infection,” Velez said.

One of the solutions used in this technology can also be used for preventative measures, like stopping bacteria from reforming on coated areas.

“I’d say overall, we’ve had a very positive reaction and lots of interests in several different markets,” Velez said.

Adding flu to the list of vaccine-preventable diseases

Dr. Matthew Davis is one of the investigators conducting a flu vaccine trial at Rochester Clinical Research. He’s been a principal and sub-investigator for over 20 years, helping to conduct over 500 clinical research studies.

Davis’ current study is testing a universal influenza vaccine to combat the damaging effects of yearly flu seasons.

“Flu vaccines have to be reformulated every year in order to prevent the suspected current year’s influenza,” Davis said. “This is the first attempt by the pharmaceutical industry to come up with a vaccine that’ll target the seasonal influenza virus and prevent it for more than one year.”

"It's just with the onset of modern genomic ability that we can contemplate constructing a vaccine like this."

For the study, Davis and his team looked for healthy people age 18-49 who did not have any previous risk factors for getting the flu. Davis said the test runs in a two-year trial to see if this new type of vaccine shows a preventative effect in the laboratory against the seasonal influenza vaccine.

“The vaccine is likely going to be very safe,” Davis said. “The question is, will it work? And that’s where we are right now.”

Davis said that it was not just this year’s particularly harsh flu season that prompted the research he is testing.

Credit sylvar / Flickr

“This year was a little bit of a blip in that the match between the seasonal vaccine and what was circulating wasn’t very good, so that more people may have more severe illness,” Davis said. “[But] this is something that’s been in the works for years…It’s just with the onset of modern genomic ability that we can contemplate constructing a vaccine like this.”

With the catchy headline “universal vaccine,” the concern is always whether the product will truly work for everyone and every strain. Davis said that is their goal, but the nature of the flu makes it difficult to achieve.

“Influenza is a very tricky virus,” Brenner said. “It is always switching up its immune presentation to try and get around human defenses. At least initially, it would be universal against certain strains, but hopefully, as time goes on…you could construct a truly universal vaccine that people would just get a booster [like tetanus].”

Davis said after the two-year trial is over, the data will take six months to a year to analyze and catalog. This means potential patients will have to wait at least three years to see the results of this study.

“Research takes a long time,” Davis said. “I think absolutely that’s in the realm of what will happen, that flu will become a preventable disease…but that may be decades away.”

Davis said that their ultimate goal is to diminish the effects influenza currently has so it stops being so harmful and sometimes lethal.

“It would be a major breakthrough when and if this comes to pass and would regulate influenza to a minor illness instead of the one now where it does create significant debility for people,” Davis said.