The ‘smart’ dressing that could save lives

A ‘smart’ medical dressing that glows when it detects bacterial infection is a step closer to saving lives of burns victims.

Around 5,000 children and 13,000 adults a year in England and Wales are treated in hospital with serious burns. Infection is a common and serious complication for these patients, but at present it is difficult for doctors to diagnose these infections, and confirmation can take several days.

The University of Brighton, and its partner organisations – the Queen Victoria Hospital and Blond McIndoe Research Foundation in East Grinstead – are playing a key role in a £1m research project to test the effectiveness of a new infection-detecting dressing which aims to improve treatment and save lives. The funding has been awarded by the Medical Research Council through their Biomedical Catalyst Stream.

The University of Brighton’s Dr Brian Jones and colleagues are working in collaboration with the University of Bath and the Healing Foundation Children’s Burns Research Centre, based at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust.

The team has developed a prototype dressing that will detect infection by a simple and easily-observed colour change, alerting healthcare professionals that the wound is infected.

University of Brighton researchers will lead work to understand how well the dressing will respond to the bacteria causing these infections, and optimise this.

In parallel, researchers will collect wound samples from patients at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, home of the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation, and the hospital where surgical pioneer Sir Archibald McIndoe treated many injured airman during the WWII, known as the Guinea Pig Club, and foresaw the need to advance the science of healing in order to benefit future generations.

Dr Jones, Reader in Molecular and Medical Microbiology at the university’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, said: “The dressing technology we are helping to develop here could be of real benefit to many patients. This could not only help clinicians provide the best possible treatment for patients with burns, but could also help us understand how wound infections begin and how they affect the normal healing process.”

Dr Brian Jones (The University of Brighton)

Dr Brian Jones (The University of Brighton)

Professor Tony Metcalfe, Director of Research at the Blond McIndoe and the University of Brighton’s Professor in Burns and Wound Healing Research, said: “This is an exciting project that aims to give surgeons an understanding of how infected a wound is during the early stages of treatment. As such, this dressing with its rapid detection would enable surgeons to modify treatments and improve the outcome for a patient with burn wounds.”

Dr Toby Jenkins, Reader in Biophysical Chemistry at Bath, is leading the project. He explained: “Our medical dressing works by releasing fluorescent dye from nanocapsules triggered by the presence of disease-causing bacteria.

“The nanocapsules mimic skin cells in that they only break open when toxic bacteria are present; they aren’t affected by the harmless bacteria that normally live on healthy skin.

“Using this dressing will allow clinicians to quickly identify infections without removing it, meaning that patients can be diagnosed and treated faster. It could really help to save lives.”

Amber Young, Clinical Lead at the South West Paediatric Burns Centre at Bristol Children’s Hospital and Clinical Lead at the Healing Foundation Children’s Burns Research Centre, is the clinical consultant on the project. She will be taking wound swabs and blister fluid from young burns patients for Dr Jenkins to test how well the new dressing detects infection in real patients.

She said: “Children are at particular risk of serious infection from even a small burn. Being able to detect infection quickly and accurately will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of young children by allowing doctors to provide the right care at the right time.”

Dr Jones said: “Locally, the partnership between the University of Brighton, the Queen Victoria Hospital, and the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation makes us uniquely placed to help drive forward these kind of innovations in healthcare, especially in areas dealing with wound healing and infection. We are delighted to be able to apply our expertise to this important project.”

Once the dressing has been proven to effectively detect infection in swab samples from patients, the team plans to work with healthcare company Hartmann to test the dressing for use in hospitals in around four years.

Author Phil Mills (University of Brighton)



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