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Mimicking nature to fight COVID-19 in Australia

Taking inspiration from insects, Australian researcher Dr Alka Jaggessar is developing ground-breaking antibacterial and antiviral surfaces that could help protect communities and save lives.

 

Scientists around the world are racing to develop new methods and tools to help fight COVID-19. At the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), post-doctoral research fellow Dr Alka Jaggessar is part of the Smart Structures and Bio-Interface Group, the first in the world to test a new metallic surface designed to deactivate viruses – and they found it deactivated the SARS-CoV-2 virus within three to six hours. This is ground-breaking for a virus that can survive on some surfaces for up to 28 days.

“What these surfaces do is deactivate that virus or bacterial cell while it’s sitting on that surface, so when someone else touches it, their risk of contracting the infection is much lower,” says Jaggessar.

Bacteria pierced by titanium dioxide nano-structure

These pioneering surfaces kill bacteria cells and deactivate viruses by mimicking the structure of insect wings. Insects such as dragonflies, cicadas and butterflies have tiny pillar-like structures on the surface of their wings and when a bacterial cell settles there, these nanopillars kill the cell by either piercing it or stretching it until the cell wall tears.

Since 2016, Jaggessar’s work has focused on replicating these nanostructures onto various surfaces using different methods and materials.

Jaggessar’s Smart Structures and Bio-Interface Group, headed by Professor Prasad Yarlagadda, is now working with the Queensland Government to start to trial these surfaces in hospitals by the end of the year.

This world-leading research began in Australia when scientists discovered the bacteria-killing capability of some insect wings in 2013. One of the researchers involved in the discovery was Dr Jafar Hasan, who is now also part of the Smart Structures and Bio-Interface Group at QUT.

“At the moment, one of the biggest issues is upscaling this technology,” says Jaggessar. “It’s something that we’re investigating using different methods, technologies and materials. It would be really great if we were the first people to get it to a scalable state through our collaboration with various industry partners and other universities.”

Dr Alka Jaggessar’s research is taking place at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia

From virus protection to safer surgeries

The initial focus of Jaggessar’s research group was on using the technology for orthopaedic implants, such as metal screws, plates and the implant surface itself. Bacterial infection is a major cause of implant failure, and can result in long-term use of antibiotics, creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs. It can also lead to revision surgery and even death.

The group developed titanium plates that replicated the nanostructures of cicada and dragonfly wings, and these were found to kill certain types of bacteria. Used in a clinical setting, this could greatly reduce the risk of bacterial infection and the formation of superbugs. A trial of these implants is due to start in the first half of 2021, when a collaboration between the QUT Smart Structures and Bio-Interface Group and the University of Queensland’s School of Dentistry will see a trial of dental implants in mice.

The group is now working with industry to explore using these surfaces in healthcare, public transport, childcare, aged care and food packaging.

“The whole point of this research is to provide some sort of public good,” says Jaggessar. “We were already doing this research, but COVID-19 has shone a light on it. Looking to the future, our aim is to avoid the devastating impacts we’ve seen with COVID-19.”

For most people, 2020 has been an extraordinary year. For Jaggessar, it’s been a turning point. The pandemic highlighted the importance of her research, and in August she was awarded an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship, which will support her ongoing work.

Imagining a safer world

Collaboration has been key to Jaggessar’s research success and, in 2018, she was part of the QUT team that hosted the Global Congress on Manufacturing and Management. She’s looking forward to attending industry conferences again once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

“I think in-person conferences are irreplaceable,” says Jaggessar. “They are such a great place to meet people and network, to learn about what others are doing, and talk to people who can help translate your research into useful products.”

Turning her trailblazing research into products that help save lives will be her priority over the next few years. “In research you’re often so focused on one tiny problem,” says Jaggessar. “But when you look at this particular work, you can really see its impact … and how it really could bring good to the world.”

 

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