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Decontamination of biological systems using plasma discharges
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BIODECON Decontamination of biological systems using plasma discharges   
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pix pix Plasmas for protection

The BIODECON Project is investigating cold plasma discharges containing high energy particles as a novel method for decontaminating surfaces. The partners hope to pioneer a highly effective decontamination procedure that avoids the damage to the decontaminated thermolabile substrates associated with existing techniques. Their work might be especially relevant for the inactivation of the infectious protein particles known as “prions”. Because the plasma ingredients will be absolutely calibrated, it will also increase knowledge about the effects plasma discharges have on biological materials.

Contamination with microorganisms and toxins is one of the biggest hygiene problems facing medical personnel. Some of the most difficult contaminants to deal with, such as the “prion” proteins that cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, are resistant to heat and other traditional disinfecting procedures. In some cases the treatment needed to deal with these contaminants can cause major damage to the solid materials, such as surgical instruments or the living tissues that are being treated. The BIODECON project is exploring the feasibility of developing new decontamination procedures using plasma discharges.

A plasma discharge is a gas containing energetically excited and ionized particles. It is generated by subjecting a source gas to energies, for example from an electric field. The energetic particles in the plasma discharge can react with and destroy biomolecules, rendering toxins and living pathogenic microorganisms harmless. The unique advantage of plasma discharges is that they are relatively harmless to sensitive substrate materials. They offer the opportunity to achieve highly effective decontamination without damaging the material being decontaminated. One of the major hopes of the BIODECON project partners is that they will develop plasma discharge methods to inactivate the prion proteins that are very stable to heat treatment.

pix pix Physics meets biology

BIODECON is being coordinated by the Center of Plasma Science and Technology at the Ruhr University, in Bochum, Germany. This EU Center of Excellence is the largest academic plasma physics group in Europe. Specialist expertise in the application of plasma discharges to microbiological samples is provided by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy and the Fraunhofer Institute (IVV) in Freising near Munich, Germany. The French Atomic Energy Commission is contributing their facilities for secure research into prion proteins, which are among the largest in Europe. The French SME ACXYS is making a crucial contribution by providing the atmospheric pressure plasma sources for use in the academic research. The partnership brings together an ideal trans-disciplinary mix of expertise in plasma physics, microbiology and commercial production.

The researchers are exploring the potential of plasmas at a range of low and high pressures, using a variety of source gases including oxygen, fluorine, hydrogen, nitrogen and argon.

pix pix Basic Science with Practical Potential

The project involves a considerable amount of fundamental research into the properties of various plasma discharges. Previous work by some of the BIODECON partners has shown that plasma treatment can efficiently remove selected contaminants, such as spores and specific toxins, at low temperature. At present, however, the full potential of plasma discharges for biological decontamination is largely unexplored, and very little is known about the ways in which different ingredients of plasmas interact with biomolecules and living cells. To throw light on these issues, the reactive species present in the plasmas will be analysed by mass spectrometry and other spectroscopic techniques. In addition, the effect of absolutely calibrated single particle sources for radicals and photons will be compared with real plasma discharges containing all these particles. The precise modifications to biomolecules that are induced by the plasmas will be detected using infra-red spectroscopy and chemical and microbiological analysis. The insights gained from this basic research will significantly add to the body of fundamental scientific knowledge about plasmas and their chemical and microbiological capabilities.

If the project achieves the results hoped for, it should prepare the ground for developing a new range of plasma-based decontamination procedures, which could be widely applied in many medical situations. The costs of decontamination, including the damage to sensitive instruments caused by some existing procedures, are a considerable burden on the European healthcare budget. Effective plasma discharge systems could make a big contribution to increasing efficiency, with consequent savings in costs.

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