Medical devices such as catheters extend from within a patient's body out through an opening in their skin, and unfortunately those openings often become infected. Thanks to new research, however, ultraviolet optical fibers may eventually keep such infections from occurring.

Ultraviolet (UV) light is well-known for its effectiveness at killing harmful bacteria, although most types of UV light are also harmful to our skin and eyes. According to a study conducted at Columbia University, however, a specific narrow spectrum of far-UVC light still eradicates bacteria, yet it can't penetrate our outer layer of dead skin or the tear layer of our eyes – this means the light isn't harmful to us.

More recently, the same scientists used a laser to send the far-UVC light through thin flexible optical fibers. When these fibers were placed across tissue cultures containing drug-resistant MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria, light diffused along the length of the fibers killed the microbes.

"Our study suggests that far-UVC light, delivered by optical fibers that can be incorporated into skin-penetrating devices, could be used to prevent catheter-based and [heart pump] driveline infections," says lead scientist Prof. David J. Brenner. "This application would be used for catheters or drivelines that have to be kept in place for long periods of time, and it's hard to keep the area where they penetrate the skin sterile. Incorporating these thin far-UVC-emitting fibers into the catheter or driveline may be the solution."

The scientists are now experimenting with applying the technology to skin-penetrating lines in animal models, plus they're working on making the required equipment portable and affordable.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.