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R2D2's Got A New Job: Zapping Away Deadly Bacteria With UV Light

The idea that there is a breed of bacteria - known as a 'superbug' - that's effectively immune to traditional antibiotics is a little disturbing, isn't it? The fact that such organisms exist - and that they're growing more numerous by the day - borders on terrifying. After all, medicine is the only countermeasure we have for stuff like this...right?

Not exactly. 

An answer to the superbug fear may well have just arrived, in the form of a strikingly familiar little robot. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to R2-D2 of the Star Wars series, the machine - which has been nicknamed "Violet" - uses ultraviolet light to 'zap' and kill superbugs has just started working at Pittsburg Hospital (and more than a dozen other facilities across the United States).  It's already proven effective against a wide array of medicine-resistant bacteria, including Staph, C. diff, and VRE.

As it turns out, the UV light emitted by Violet penetrates the cell walls of both bacteria and viruses, destroying their DNA. This renders them effectively inert; unable to reproduce. Now, it's worth mentioning that this robot is exclusively intended for cleaning duty at the current moment - it's not made to be used on humans.

It's not difficult to work out why. Speaking as a layman, the human body contains a wide array of beneficial bacteria. The radiation given off by Violent - while it might not be immediately harmful to human subjects - wouldn't discriminate between the malicious superbugs and the benign bacteria. The end result is that the patients might actually end up worse off than they were before.

Still, it's a huge leap forward; infection control is still a serious problem in many hospitals across the United States. According to the daily mail, more people in the country die from Hospital-borne infections than from AIDS, breast cancer, and car accidents combined. In addition to the obvious emotional toll, these deaths carry a rather serious financial one - their annual cost is estimated at somewhere around $40 billion

"Hospital-associated infections are an issue nationwide and preventing them at UPMC hospitals is a top priority," explained Tami Minnier, chief quality officer of The University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. "These robots coupled with our many other infection prevention measure are an important tool in ensuring patient safety. We are grateful to the Passavant Hospital Foundation for helping us to expand their use." 

After an employee has scrubbed down a hospital room, Violet is brought in by a trained technician. That technician opens all drawers and doors to expose every possible surface, turns on the robot, and leaves the room. Depending on the size of the room, this process can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour; the robot is wheeled away after the cleaning procedure is finished.

 

"The robot enhances the cleaning by our employees," explains UPMC infectious disease physician Joseph Romano in the above video. "It does not scrub surfaces or remove dirt; it kills microscopic germs that can be missed in even the most thorough cleaning." 

So just how successful is Violet in cutting down the risk of infection? 

Extremely. According to several peer-reviewed studies outside UPMC, Violet and its ilk reduce bacterial contamination in hospital rooms by around 95%, cutting hospital-associated infections by a factor of two. Not bad, right?

Although we're still not much further along in figuring out how to deal with superbugs, we've at least reduced the chance of infection. Hopefully, this machine starts seeing use in facilities across the globe. After all, we can never be too careful with our health care, right?