UV light has been used to destroy drug-resistant bacteria.

In recent months, a number of scientists worldwide have warned about the growing scourge of superbugs, those bacteria that are all but immune to traditional antibiotics. Figures from the Harvard School of Medicine show as many as 2 million illnesses each year are caused by these destructive superbugs.

To more effectively combat this scourge, researchers everywhere are developing new techniques, especially as it relates to wound care. A team from the U.K.’s University of East Anglia developed a technique to short-circuit these superbugs. Meanwhile, Swedish doctors created new dressings that significantly decrease infection rates.

Now, as part of a recently published study in the journal PLOS One, scientists have used narrow wavelength UV light to destroy drug-resistant bacteria.

Narrowing the wavelength

This isn’t the first work with UV rays for this team of researchers from the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center. In fall 2013, they experimented with a different form of UV rays, but found that there was too great a risk to nearby skin. They needed a wavelength of ultraviolet light that could kill bacteria without exposing the rest of the body to harmful doses. They found the answer in UV light that’s called far-UVC.

This extremely narrow variation – about 207 nanometers – can kill the bacteria that live on the outermost exterior of skin, but the rays simply are notstrong enough to go through the skin and into organs or other vital segments. The Columbia collective also noted that the UV rays can’t penetrate the eye, and that could have unique applications.

The team experimented exclusively with a group of hairless rats. But in an accompanying press release, lead author David J. Brenner said that the team is ready to begin new clinical trials with larger animals, including humans. They’re also able to expand the range of bacteria and viruses that they’re able to combat, including influenza and tuberculosis.

But perhaps of most interest is what this UV technique could mean for treating surgical site infections. These SSIs are quite dangerous, and as the Society of Critical Care Medicine explained, double the overall mortality rate for patients. Not only that, but SSIs are one of a select few infections that cost the health care industry upwards of $10 billion per year, according to a 2013 review in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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