Using silver to protect against bacteria has a long history, from treating burns to purifying water. Hippocrates first described silver’s antibacterial properties in 400BC and ancient Phoenicians knew enough to keep water, wine and vinegar in silver vessels to keep them fresh.
Today, with the rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria, nanosilver – which is very potent in killing bacteria – is seen as an alternative to antibiotics. So, it’s no surprise that nanoparticles of silver that measure less than 10,000th of a millimetre are increasingly found in medical devices like internal catheters and implants, and in wound dressings to fight infections.
But, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ithree institute Dr Cindy Gunawan is concerned the nanoparticles are now also increasingly being used in everyday products.
“Companies have been incorporating nanosilver in personal care products, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, clothing, socks, kitchen appliances, washing machines – even baby bottles, teats and toys – without effective regulation or adequate research into the risks of this approach. We don’t know if it is going to harm the babies,” says Gunawan.
As a mother of three small children herself, this lack of regulation and risk to children and the community has spurred her research to draw attention to the potential harm of the widespread use of nanosilver
The key question for Gunawan is: will the increasing use of these particles in everyday products mean silver nanoparticles become less effective and create resistance in bacteria?
In previous studies, Gunawan has already found bacteria have the natural ability to adapt to nanosilver attacks, but she wants to find out more.
“I wanted to explore how bacteria develop resistance to nanosilver, which is why I joined ithree. This kind of work is their bread and butter,” says Gunawan. “They focus on bacterial research. Combined with the research environment and intellectual resources of ithree as one of UTS’s research strengths, their focus will bring my project even further and help me answer my questions.
“I would like my research to be meaningful, to be beneficial for society, for the world,” adds Gunawan. “I’d like to see nanosilver more effectively regulated in future. The aim is for a more judicial use of nanosilver, not to just put it in everything.
“Once we know how bacteria develop resistance to nanosilver, we can use the knowledge to develop a new generation of nanoparticles with less tendency of resistance from bacteria, which in turn will increase the efficacy,” she says. “Equally important, we can also use the knowledge to track for resistance genes in many bacteria, so we don’t have the same crisis we’re now facing with antibiotic resistance.”