A Maine paper mill joins the fight against superbugs, with a product inspired by sharks

Hospitals face perhaps no bigger challenge today than the proliferation of dangerous infections that are resistant to antibiotics. Their weapons of choice in the battle against so-called “superbugs” span from the low-tech (thorough hand-washing) to the high-tech (paint and fabrics infused with antimicrobial chemicals).

Now comes a new defense against those nasty germs, which are responsible for an uncounted number of deaths each year.

This new offering comes from a couple of players that I never expected to encounter in the field of infection control: A Maine paper mill and (why not since we’re already in scary territory here) sharks.

Sappi North America is manufacturing a new type of paper designed to inhibit the growth of bacteria without the use of chemicals. Sappi has an exclusive agreement with Sharklet Technologies, the company that patented the “microtexture,” to produce the paper at its Westbrook mill.

The paper is imprinted with an incredibly fine texture that mimics the surface of shark skin, which naturally slows the growth of barnacles and algae.

Magnified shark skin

Magnified shark skin

The Sharklet micropattern

The Sharklet micropattern

The microscopic bumps appear to similarly thwart bacteria, based on one early study. Researchers contaminated a variety of materials with two types of worrisome superbugs, MRSA and MSSA, finding that the bacteria was less likely to adhere to the Sharklet microtexture. Sharklet harbored 94 percent less MRSA and 97 percent less MSSA compared to smooth surfaces, according to the study.

That’s just one study though, and all of the authors were either employed by or working as consultants for Sharklet Technologies. But the findings suggest that Sharklet has the potential to help reduce the spread of those infections in hospitals.

The product’s development comes as many in the healthcare industry move away from antimicrobial chemicals and metals, such as copper, due to concerns about their effectiveness and unhealthy toxins they may contain. The U.S. CDC has said that “no evidence is available to suggest that use of these products will make consumers and patients healthier or prevent disease.” Kaiser Permanente of California, one the nation’s largest health systems, banned many antimicrobial products from its facilities in 2015.

A doctor performs a surgical procedure at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. BDN File photo | Denise Farwell

A doctor performs a surgical procedure at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Denise Farwell | BDN File photo

The Sharklet paper could be applied to a variety of surfaces in hospitals, not to mention hotels, restaurants, and other facilities. Some prime candidates are the typically dirtiest surfaces, such as cushions on waiting room furniture, wall coverings in patient rooms, and the tables that swivel over hospital beds, explained Tom Collins, vice president and general manager for specialties business at Sappi North America.

Sappi's mill in Westbrook. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Sappi’s mill in Westbrook. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Like all of the “release papers” that Sappi produces, the Sharklet paper acts as a mold for coated fabric and laminates. It transfers texture and gloss onto other surfaces and is then stripped away.

For Sappi, what’s different about the Sharklet release paper is that it’s functional. Sappi’s bread and butter business, meanwhile, are release papers that impart textures for aesthetic appeal, such as synthetic leathers.

Sappi also upped its game by creating a new process to impart the pattern at a micron level of detail, Collins said.

While he doesn’t expect the partnership with Sharklet to lead to new jobs at Sappi, Collins said it represents a new growth area for his company.

“Now that we can do these functional textures and these micro textures, it opens up a whole lot of opportunities for us,” he said.

Currently in beta testing, the paper is expected to become commercially available in early 2017 under the name Neoterix ST.


Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.