Long before Sir Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of Penicillin in 1928, our ancestors were already putting the antimicrobial effects of metal to use.
Metals such as copper and silver were used as vessels by ancient civilizations to keep their water clean and safe to drink (1). Researchers have also discovered a reference in an ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus (circa 1600 BCE), in which copper may have been used to treat and prevent chest infection (2). This biocidal effect of certain heavy metals is known as the Oligodynamic effect.
Oligodynamic can be defined as “active or effective in very small quantities.” The concept is very simple: the metal ions are killing bacteria (3). Research has determined the cause to be electric charges between the bacterial cell membrane and the metal ions. Using the example of copper, ions dissolved from the surface of the metal bond to the membrane of the bacterial cell wall to create an organocopper compound. These organocopper compounds continue to pull apart the membrane of the bacteria and alter its shape (3). Exposure to copper can damage bacterial respiration and DNA, which will ultimately inactivate and destroy the cell (4).
Copper was used thousands of years ago to kill bacteria…Why are we not doing the same?
Copper is already being tested in the medical field as well as in hospitals to prevent the spread of nosocomial infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE). Frequently touched surfaces or busy areas can become a safe-haven for bacteria. In one study, copper-prototype objects were substituted in the patient room of an ICU to test the antimicrobial effects compared to items composed of other materials (stainless steel, plastics, etc). Although only 7% of touch surfaces were replaced by copper-prototypes, results showed more than a 50% reduction in infection cases (1).
At this point in time, scientists continue to struggle to develop new antibiotics faster than resistance is evolving. Maybe it’s time that items such as bed rails, door knobs, and faucet handles be composed of copper- containing brass. The ancients knew this thousands of years ago. Why have we not learned from their experience?
Additional research into bacteria and the Oligodynamic effect is warranted, since it may be a very useful tool in the fight against the increasing resistance of pathogenic bacteria.
Technical Support Representative