Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant.

Exeter researcher to develop coatings that kill superbugs

A scientist from the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus is part of a €3 million Europe-wide research collaboration to pioneer research into safer, more effective antibacterial plastics and coatings.

These coatings could be used in items such as food packaging, medical devices to wound dressings and nappies.

Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant, of the School of Biosciences, has worked with a team from the University of Bath and colleagues in Europe to develop a range of new compounds. They have been shown to be highly effective against common hospital bacterial infections such as MRSA and are safer than existing antimicrobials based on silver nanoparticles.

They will develop these compounds so they can be cheaply and efficiently incorporated into a wide range of materials from medical devices, wound dressings, food packaging and even nappies.

So-called “superbug” bacteria such as MRSA are dangerous because they are resistant to most conventional antibiotics, a problem that is getting worse each year. To try and understand this problem, the researchers will also be studying which genes allow bacteria to become resistant.

Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant is originally from Cornwall and moved back to the county to join the University of Exeter in 2006. He said: “This project is a great example of how research in Cornwall could make life better for people. If we can find a way to stay one step ahead of evolution in the fight against pathogenic bacteria and infections, like MRSA, then we could potentially be saving millions of lives.”

Dr Toby Jenkins of the University of Bath added: “In simple terms, we want to know what is special about that one bacterium in a million that is resistant to an antimicrobial polymer. Which genes are switched on or off and which proteins are produced to help the bacterium survive?”

Carleen Kelemen, Director of the Convergence Partnership Office for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said: “The Combined Universities in Cornwall is the root of the renaissance of the Cornish economy. Back in 1999 when it was still a dream, we hoped that it would give young people the choice to stay here; attract professional Cornish experts back to continue successful careers in Cornwall and create new ideas and tradable knowledge to add value to the local economy. This world class research activity demonstrates all this and also shows that we are a beacon for international teamwork."    

The research team comprised the Universities of Bath, Barcelona, Exeter, St. Gallen (Switzerland), Mainz and Cologne (both Germany).

The £100 million Tremough Campus is a Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative ­of which the University of Exeter and Falmouth University are two of the founding partners. It is funded mainly by the European Union (Objective One), the South West Regional Development Agency, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with support from Cornwall County Council. Set in 70 acres of countryside, but close to the waterside towns of Penryn and Falmouth, the campus offers a lively student community. The University of Exeter now offers degrees in Biology, Modern Celtic and Cornish Studies, English, Geology, Geography, History, Law, Mining Engineering, Politics and Renewable Energy on its Tremough Campus, which has expanded rapidly as part of the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative.

Date: 24 March 2009

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