Biomedical fiber research in Nova Scotia could lead to anti-germ masks
A happy accident in a Halifax lab six years ago could one day lead to a face mask capable of neutralizing viruses like COVID-19.
A multidisciplinary research team led by John Frampton, associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie University, was working with polymer clay in 2015 when they realized it could form extremely fine fibers.
The team includes students from Frampton and other researchers from Dalhousie such as Jong Sung Kim from community health and epidemiology and Craig McCormick from microbiology and immunology.
“We were really fascinated by the fact that you just touch an object with this polymer clay and a fiber forms almost instantly,” Frampton said in an interview in his lab Friday in the InnovaCorp building in Halifax.
“At first, we were interested in what we could add to it to make a fiber that actually does something,” like antibiotic solutions and additions that stopped the bleeding.
They opted for collagen – the protein that connects body tissue – because cells could be grown there, creating mini-tissue.
When this fabric is used as a filter between two layers of cotton, it forms a face mask that can filter out 95% of the incoming particles.
A video segment on fiber research can be found at 3:49 am
Mix of expertise
“We had this great mix of science expertise, we had engineers, physicists in our lab to figure out how to actually make these materials, we had the environmental testing lab to figure out how to test the filtration capacity of the material,” explained Frampton. .
In addition to the filtration capacity, the tissue acts as an antiviral agent with the addition of silver nanoparticles, which can neutralize viruses that come in contact with them.
The material also dissolves in water, potentially making it more environmentally friendly.
A team from NSCAD University led by Gary Markle helped design a prototype mask that could contain the filter membrane and be suitable for someone to wear on their face.
Cheap to produce
While you might think that using exotic-sounding materials like nanoparticles would be an expensive mask, the opposite is true, Frampton said.
“The entire bottle of polymer powder, with which we can make thousands of masks, costs around $ 40 or $ 50. The thing we would have to figure out is how to manufacture them on a large scale and how that would affect the actual price if we were to offer them to the public or to medical professionals. “
Researchers last year formed a company called 3-D BioFibR, as part of the InnovaCorp system, with the goal of making this type of biomedical product based on new non-woven fiber technology.
If the company can find a manufacturer to actually produce the face masks, it will be years before they hit the market, Frampton said. As with any medical device, masks should undergo testing and approvals by government agencies.
“The company is very focused on the regenerative medicine market and advanced technologies for things like clothing,” he said. “So the idea of the mask is not within the purview of the company and it is something that we have explored academically. … We are always looking for other partners who can take it to the next level.