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Northwell Health takes on superbugs

The health care system has partnered with a Manhattan company to test a disinfecting device that sterilizes everything from surgical tables and operating room equipment to complex tools.

Northwell Health infection prevention vice president Donna Armellino talks about the hospital system's enhanced cleaning capabilities, including the use of PurpleSun's ultraviolet device, which can remove microbes in 90 seconds, greatly reducing the risk of infection. (Credit: Anthony DelMundo, Northwell Studios)

Infection control experts are escalating their warfare against hospital microbes with the development of Star Wars-like technology that uses ultraviolet energy to destroy rogue pathogens finding their way into hospitals.

The Northwell Health network is working with medical technology developer PurpleSun in Manhattan on the technology. They are testing a type of disinfecting device that uses a strength of ultraviolet light equivalent to the most intense UV light emitted by the sun — but is blocked by earth’s upper atmosphere.

The ultraviolet light system, which has not yet been sold commercially, has a 98 percent kill-rate, a Northwell analysis of the UV device has shown.

“The ultraviolet light with its current intensity is able to disinfect the environment within 90 seconds,” said Donna Armellino, vice president for infection prevention for the health system. She said Northwell will deploy the device in its operating rooms this year as a new method of sterilizing everything from surgical tables and operating room equipment to complex tools such as the da Vinci surgical robot.

She expects the technology to be used in other parts of Northwell's system next year. One aim of the joint venture between the health care giant and PurpleSun is to move toward a greater use of UV light because of its potent sterilization capacity.

Although ultraviolet C radiation appears highly effective, Armellino underscored that the technology will not entirely replace manual disinfection with chemical compounds.   

The device arrives as the health care industry awaits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated list of potentially deadly pathogens, which is expected to be published this fall. Six years ago, the CDC released its first list of 18 rogue pathogens known to infiltrate health care settings.

Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization listed drug-resistant so-called "superbugs" as one the top 10 global health threats for 2019. Drug resistance is expected to be the leading cause of death by 2050, outstripping heart disease and cancer unless measures are taken to beat back the bugs.

Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey joined Northwell and PurpleSun on Monday to help commercialize the device. 

Armellino said not only does light from the modular system destroy superbugs, it also is capable of destroying spores emitted by Clostridium difficile, bacteria that have invaded hospitals worldwide, including institutions on Long Island.

“We are fighting things we cannot see so we need new technology to better equip ourselves,” said Luis Romo, founder and chief executive of PurpleSun, who with a team of collaborators created the connected modular system of six-foot panels on wheels.

The system is easily moved from one part of a hospital to another, Romo said, and can wrap around a surgical table. Anything enclosed in the area and hit by the light will be sterilized. The device is formally called a focused multivector ultraviolet system. 

Although small UV light fixtures, usually affixed to ceilings or walls, have been used in tuberculosis clinics for decades, they were not always effective, nor was the intensity of UV light powerful enough to kill all surface microbes, studies have shown.

Romo came up with the idea of using the most intense ultraviolet wavelengths as a sterilization method while a graduate student in 2012.

Armellino, meanwhile, worked with a team of researchers to determine how effectively the panels' ultraviolet energy destroy pathogens. She reported the findings earlier this month in the American Journal of Infection Control.

The team found the panels emit such potent energy that all microbes in the light’s path are destroyed.

She and her team additionally used the panels on 3,000 microbiological samples taken after 100 different surgical cases in and around operating rooms at three different hospitals in the greater metropolitan area. No microbe exposed to the UV light survived, the research showed.

About the device

  • The PurpleSun device is capable of sterilizing an entire operating room, killing 97.7 percent of microbes in the space. The device, which has 6-foot-high panels, can surround a surgical table or disinfect large equipment such as the da Vinci surgical robot. UV light hits objects from five sides.
  • The control panel is on the outside, and the device is operated by hospital housekeeping staff. Operators of the device must wear goggles while the device is in use to protect their eyes from high intensity UV radiation.

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