Air Purification System Uses UV Light to Eliminate Pathogens

One in 20 hospital patients in the United States acquire an infection during their stay. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the problem of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) carries an annual direct hospital cost of $28 billion to $45 billion. So when Werner Bischoff, MD, PhD, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Health System Epidemiologist and Medical Director for Infection Control, was approached about a new purification system that could reduce airborne pathogens, he was more than interested.

Coincidentally, the now-budding partnership between Wake Forest Baptist and PhotoxAirTM, LLC, all began when the entrepreneurs behind PhotoxAir read about the prevalence of germs and bacteria in hospitals through a Bischoff study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Flu and Human Exposures

Bischoff began doing research in the field because he was interested in how pandemics such as H1N1 were spread and what might be the best way for health care providers to protect themselves and patients. The CDC, he found out, was not sure.

So for the 2010-11 flu season, he led a study at Wake Forest Baptist that looked at patients in the Emergency Department with flu-like symptoms and tracked them and the people they came in contact with.

Two key findings:

  • The suggested safety zone method of keeping people away from those infected with flu was not necessarily helpful because flu was readily detected in smaller particles, which can travel through the air further than large droplets.
  • Surgical masks, recommended for health care providers by the CDC, cannot properly protect against small particles.

The findings intrigued principals at Zentox Corp., a Virginia-based company involved in wastewater treatment, water reuse, pathogen-control and ozone water treatment systems for a variety of industrial applications.

From Water Purification to Air Purification

Zentox had developed the PhotoxAir purification system, a mobile unit that uses UV light and a special fibrous mat to sense and destroy airborne pathogens. The photocatalytic process to remove volatile organic compounds in the air was tested in Canada and in various configurations. Its principles—Larry Laxton, Steve Axtell, Dick Svrluga and Joe Phillips—however, saw a greater good in offering the technology to places where HAIs were more likely. After reading about Bischoff’s study, a meeting was arranged.

“Once we met Dr. Bischoff and the team at Wake Forest Baptist, we immediately understood that we had found the right individual and institution to carefully evaluate the efficacy of our technology to reduce airborne pathogens in a clinical setting,” Laxton said.

“In the days ahead, we will be exploring with Wake Forest Baptist the opportunities for the hospital and PhotoxAir (which was spun off from Zentox, and is based in Winston-Salem) to partner together to help bring this technology to the health care market and make an important contribution to the reduction of HAIs.”

Testing the Air Purification System

Bischoff and his colleague in Infectious Diseases, John Stehle, PhD, know they have more to do to ensure the PhotoxAir system works well to remove pathogens from the air in the clinical setting; however, they believe early testing has been promising.

“We’re looking at the PhotoxAir system more broadly than just protecting from the flu. It also could protect against general bacteria, fungus, and any kind of upper respiratory infection,” Stehle said. “This could be something that improves the health of hospitals for both patients and employees.”

For areas of hospitals that use HEPA filtration systems—a type of vacuum system that captures extremely small particles—the PhotoxAir system could prove to be a less expensive and more effective alternative, something that won’t be known until more testing is complete.

The PhotoxAir system differs from other UV disinfection systems in its mechanism and application. Other systems are brought in after a patient is discharged to assist in room cleaning. The PhotoxAir system can be used concurrently in a patient-occupied room. This could provide the added benefit of reducing the transmission of pathogens at a critical time—during the patient’s stay.

Bischoff and Stehle said the goal is for the tests of PhotoxAir at Wake Forest Baptist to show the system provides better protection than the current standard of care, and can be used by emergency departments and other inpatient and outpatient groups. Bischoff said complete measurements from testing the system in Wake Forest Baptist’s emergency department should be available within a year.

“Not a lot of groups do the extensive air measurement research we do,” Bischoff said. “At the end of the day, hopefully PhotoxAir will prove to be something that can make a real impact in the world.”

Email partnering@wakehealth.edu or call +1.336.713.1111 to request a meeting with Drs. Bischoff and/or Stehle.

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