Edmonton transit users are part of a six-month pilot project assessing a new and surprisingly simple method of killing dangerous bacteria on touch surfaces—door push plates made of compressed salt.
The pilot project, conducted by Edmonton biotechnology startup Outbreaker Solutions, involves compressing sodium chloride (the chemical name for salt) into moulds to form hard, smooth, ceramic-like materials. This compressed sodium chloride (CSC) can be used on high-touch surfaces such as door handles, handrails, hospital beds, bus railings and taps. In the transit test project, CSC push plates will be installed outside doors in 10 LRT stations, with the first already mounted by the doors inside the Bay/Enterprise Square station in downtown Edmonton.
Outbreaker has been developing these products since 2014, but the process ramped up quickly when they were accepted in 2018 as a member of the University of Alberta Health Accelerator, located at TEC Centre Labs in downtown Edmonton’s Enterprise Square. The accelerator helps entrepreneurs in the health sector build successful businesses.
The company’s peer-reviewed research has shown that antimicrobial CSC kills between 95 and 99 per cent of bacteria and drug-resistant superbugs in just one minute. Their most recent research paper, published in January in Nature Scientific Reports, concluded that CSC reduced E. coli by 99.9 per cent in the first two minutes of contact, and C. auris (Candida auris) by at least 99 per cent in one minute.
That is far faster and more effective than copper, the next-best antimicrobial surface material, said Brayden Whitlock, Outbreaker’s director of research and a PhD candidate in the U of A’s Department of Physiology. (He’s also finishing up a law degree at the U of A this year).
Whitlock said Outbreaker has tested its product on many bacteria, including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococci), salmonella and listeria, and the results have all been outstanding. “The science is crystal clear,” he said.
More than 200,000 patients—one in 12—admitted to health-care facilities in Canada are affected by antimicrobial-resistant infections each year while receiving care. MRSA alone was estimated to cost the Canadian health-care system between $54 and $110 million in 2005.
But health-care-associated infections are only one small piece of the puzzle, Whitlock stressed: “Most of the time someone gets an infection, it is not from a hospital.”
As Outbreaker’s most recent study points out, antimicrobial-resistant infections are expected to cost US$60 to $100 trillion and 300 million lives by 2050.
Research is also underway at the U of A into the effectiveness of CSC against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Results are expected this spring.
Surprising connection leads to innovation
Outbreaker’s technology was invented by Doug Olson, a Manitoba man who trained in meat cutting, where he learned about controlling harmful micro-organisms. Olson went on to manage a large meat-processing facility and ran a big-game outfitting business, where they used salt to preserve hides.
A natural problem solver, Olson applied his experience to the issue of hand-to-hand microbial transmission and came up with the idea of using compressed salt to kill microbes. He met Whitlock, and later Outbreaker co-founder and U of A graduate Matt Hodgson, when the two friends were both enthusiastic undergraduates with a strong interest in entrepreneurial ventures.
Although Olson is still a company owner, Outbreaker is now in the hands of the two young Edmontonians. Hodgson carries most of the business responsibilities, while Whitlock looks after the research side.
Their first task, from 2014 to 2015, was securing Canadian and U.S. patents on the use of salt as an antimicrobial surface. “The other big piece that we really needed to establish was a much more solid research program around the product, especially being in the infection-control space,” said Hodgson.
They published their first peer-reviewed study—a head-to-head comparison of the effectiveness of CSC and antimicrobial copper against MRSA—in 2016 in the Journal of Hospital Infection. The results showed that CSC killed the bacteria 20 to 30 times faster than copper, said Whitlock. With that encouragement, Outbreaker Solutions incorporated in 2017 and got its first angel investment in 2019.
Just as crucial, though, was Outbreaker’s acceptance into the U of A Health Accelerator. Being part of the program has given them office space and access to the facility’s microbiology lab, allowing them to do vital research.
Looking ahead to certification, growth
From here, Outbreaker will concentrate on commercializing its product and forming partnerships in research, sales and distribution. Target customers will be organizations like the Edmonton Transit System, with high-traffic touch surfaces in public areas. These could include offices, schools and, of course, health-care systems, where microbial infections are such a critical─and potentially deadly─issue.
The biggest hurdle yet to be cleared is certification from regulatory agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. “We’re not afraid of the science at all,” said Whitlock. “It’s more the bureaucracy involved. They’re very slow-moving bodies.”
U of A Health Accelerator manager Sandra Spencer has been an invaluable mentor for Outbreaker, said Hodgson. She has helped them make connections with other companies and resources, and tap into grant programs and challenges from organizations such as Alberta Innovates and Roche Canada.
“The Health Accelerator has supported our company in so many ways,” said Hodgson. “It’s been huge.”