UK: Innovation In Sterilisation

Last Updated: 11 July 2017
Article by David Hammond

Processes and techniques to remove microbes from objects that we consume in everyday life is often overlooked but is crucial technology. From the plastic packaging for our cosmetics or toiletries being clean through to surgical equipment being used during medical procedures, sterilisation technologies ensure that products have a longer shelf-life; and more importantly are not able to pass on any pathogens to the end consumer or user.

The risk of infection during surgical procedures is particularly acute, and the regulatory requirements for sterilisation of any equipment to be used in the operating theatre are understandably stringent. With the emergence of new viral or bacterial strains that have or might evolve resistance to existing sterilisation technologies, sterilisation service providers are continuously innovating to stay ahead of evolutionary pressures which could result in existing technologies not being fit for purpose.

Healthcare trusts and providers need to know who is providing their sterilisation services, as well as being able to trust that the technologies being used are state of the art and will not put patient lives at risk. Patent databases are a useful source of information on what technologies are being developed, and by whom. The below study takes a look at the patent activity in this specialist sector, for the last 5 years (2011-2015).

Top innovating companies

A search on the patent databases for specific patent classifications relating to non-food sterilisation was undertaken and the headline companies are summarised in the table below.

In addition to bottling and packaging companies such as Krones, KHS and Tetra Laval, there is significant activity from medical and surgical sterilisation companies such as Steris Corporation, 3M, B Braun, and Panasonic Healthcare.

The first patent classification relating to the non-food sterilisation sector has been analysed for each document and summarised as a high-level technology category to outline the main sterilisation techniques employed.

From the technology summary chart above, it is interesting to note the recent increase in filings between 2014 and 2015, which is significant when compared to the relatively flat filing totals of previous years. This trend suggests an increased demand for new, better technologies for sterilisation. It is also apparent that the main interests lie in radiation and chemical type sterilisation techniques.

Radiation sterilisation techniques appear to be focussed around mainly UV, nuclear particle and Gamma type radiation. On further breakdown of the chemical sector, there is a large portion of miscellaneous innovation regarding sterilising solutions for cleaning and antimicrobial coatings. The main chemical technologies concentrate on peroxide, ozone and ethylene oxide techniques.

A quick review of the more recently published documents, in 2015 and 2016, gives us an insight into the most recent research activity of the companies. Interesting developments include:

Sterilisation efficacy testing

A robust sterilisation process is one which reliably and reproducibly gives the same result, and so it is important to be able to monitor for any drop-off in efficiency. 3M has a number of patent applications relating to devices designed to test how effective a sterilisation technique is using a simple testing device that is placed in the apparatus. The most recent publication (US patent application US20160000954A1) describes a testing device specifically for low-temperature sterilisation processes using more than one sterilising agent, for example ozone and hydrogen peroxide. The device has a simple biological indicator that can visually summarise the efficacy of each of the types of sterilising agent.

Visible light sterilisation

The blue part of the visible light spectrum can be used to achieve sterilisation effects within the hospital environment. This technique opens up uses that cannot be implemented with more traditional UV-C based systems. For example, US20160015840A1 by Liteproducts LLC describes integration of high-intensity narrow-band blue LEDs into traditional light fittings, or hand sanitizing or drying equipment. In the hospital environment, this allows the pathogen count to be continuously kept low and hands sanitized without the adverse effects of continuous use of alcohol gels or other products. Blue visible light is harmless to humans but is capable of de-activating bacterial spores and so could reduce the risk of transmission of MRSA on a hospital ward.

Reactive surface coating

There are a number of documents describing reactive surface coatings that can eliminate microbial contamination. US Patent 9,353,269 B2, granted to American Sterilizer Company, a Steris company, is directed to renewable, reactive film-forming coatings which contain active peroxide-containing materials and which have been shown to be effective in reducing S. aureus count.

With more emphasis being put on sterile medical facilities for health and wellbeing, and greater awareness of the risks of leaving sterilising and cleaning open to human or operator error, we can expect further developments in coatings on objects that provide an element of sterility. For example, silver-ions or photo-catalytics where exposure to light induces a sterilising reaction to take place in the coating. As this technology develops and becomes more cost effective, we may see such anti-microbial coatings included in surgical products in the not-so-distant future.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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