Copper is an essential metal for human biological functions and is highly regulated within the body, however copper is starting to be exploited to now protect us from the threat of bacterial infections, and may be utilised in our hospitals to prevent the spread of conditions such as MRSA.
Copper in the body is needed for producing functional proteins and enzymes as well as being required for metabolic processes and is required in many organs for multiple processes. Copper is also needed in bacteria and yeast but across all organisms the metal ions are regulated by importers and exporters, with excess or deficiency causing major problems. In humans, genetic diseases can cause excess copper build up known as Wilson’s Disease or the lack of copper availability which is known as Menke’s Disease.
Copper is imported into cells mainly by the CTR1 transporter and then moved around the cell to where it is most needed by metal chaperones that deliver the metals ions that also prevent it binding to non-target molecules in the cell. One of the targets in the cell is get the copper into the Golgi apparatus which requires the ATP7A and ATP7B transporters, under high copper these transporters move from the Golgi to the cell membrane to pump out the excess ions. Wilson’s disease is a genetic mutation in the ATP7B gene that causes a build-up of copper in the liver as if there are fewer transporters to move to the membrane and remove the ions it will remain in the cell. The ions will then enter the blood and cause toxicity in the eyes, kidneys and brain. Menke’s however is an inherited mutation in the ATP7A protein, the loss of which prevents enough copper ions getting to where they need to be. Not enough copper has horrible side effects such as neurodegeneration and can cause death in young childhood.
ON A LIGHTER NOTE!
These diseases are very rare but they do highlight how important copper is. Inside the body copper keeps us ticking over but outside the body it can also protect us. Within hospitals the spread of bacteria can be a major problem and it can be a hotbed for the evolution of drug resistant bacteria such as MRSA. It has been known for a few years now that copper is effective in killing bacteria and the reasons have now been elucidated. The three main mechanisms:
- As it enters the cell it punctures holes in the bacterial membrane causing it to be leaky
- Excess copper in bacterial cells cause the break-down of the respiratory chain
- Copper is genotoxic to bacteria causing mutations in the bacterial cell DNA
Due to these very appealing effects copper can have on various bacterial strains including MRSA in just minutes when millions of them are placed on a copper plate, it could have many uses in patient care.
Copper containing fabric’s under the commercial name of Cu29 has now been designed for patient clothing to be worn during treatment and aims to prevent infections that can easily be passed around in a hospital. Human skin is not sensitive to copper so there is no risk of extra copper absorption. This fabric has been used to produce pyjama’s, bed linens and even underwear are now available to buy online but are pretty pricey with a set of PJ’s costing £49.99. Hopefully if the products are shown to be effective in protecting patients the NHS may begin to provide them for the most at risk.
So with the prospect of shining orange hospital wards replacing the stainless steel and high tech clothing, it may be possible to put up another line of defence against bacterial infections for the already sick within our society.
Another encouraging side of this story is that this fabric has been developed by an 18-year old female entrepreneur; it may have been originally to make odour-free dog beds but if it can save lives for vulnerable people, in my opinion it’s more than welcome…and it is available in more colours than orange.
If you enjoyed this article you may also like:
Domek MJ, LeChevallier MW, Cameron SC, & McFeters GA (1984). Evidence for the role of copper in the injury process of coliform bacteria in drinking water. Applied and environmental microbiology, 48 (2), 289-93 PMID: 6385846
Espírito Santo C, Lam EW, Elowsky CG, Quaranta D, Domaille DW, Chang CJ, & Grass G (2011). Bacterial killing by dry metallic copper surfaces. Applied and environmental microbiology, 77 (3), 794-802 PMID: 21148701