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An Antibacterial Plastic Made From Egg Whites

Scientists investigating alternatives to petroleum-based plastics have found that a bioplastic made from proteins found in egg whites demonstrate superior antibacterial properties and are fully biodegradable. The new bioplastic shows promise for use in medical devices, as it could reduce the spread of healthcare-associated infections and hospital waste.

According to researchers at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences (UGC), petroleum-based plastics pose the risk of contamination and infection when used in medical applications. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science, the team studied three possible alternatives: albumin, whey, and soy.

The study found that both whey and albumin, when mixed with the plasticizer glycerol, showed similar viscoelasticity and thermal properties. When treated with Bacillus subtilis and Escherichia coli, researchers observed no bacterial growth on either bioplastic after 24 hours of observation.

“No bacteria would grow on the plastic once applied,” said Alex Jones, a doctoral student at UGC and lead author of the study, in a UGA Today news story.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 25 patients admitted into an acute care hospital in 2011 developed some kind of healthcare-associated infection.

With the growing prevalence of antibiotic superbugs, these statistics are particularly troublesome. A CDC reportreleased in 2013 estimated that 2 million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 die as a result of these infections.

The new materials could provide significant advantage if used to develop medical devices such as catheters, sutures, wound dressings, and drug delivery. Also, researchers said the bioplastic could be loaded with antibiotics to further reduce the risk of an infection’s development or spread.

In addition to the bioplastic’s antibacterial merits, the albumin-glycerol material is also better for the environment.

Practice Greenhealth, a collaborative project of the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), estimates that American hospitals produce 5.9 million tons of waste per year. Petroleum-based plastics, in particular, can take thousands of years to break down.

“If you put it [the bioplastic] in a landfill, this is pure protein, it will break down. If you put it in soil for a month — at most two months — these plastics will disappear,” Jones told the UGA Today.

According to researchers, the next step will be to scale up production of the bioplastics and further investigate the material’s potential in biomedical applications.

Image credit: "Eggs" by Ali Jafri. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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