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As a kid, you were probably annoyed by demands from mom or dad to wash your hands at every turn. Like many childhood nuisances, however, it’s something many of us grew to appreciate – and with good reason.

From computer keyboards to bathroom faucets, germs are everywhere and contribute to many of the world’s deadliest diseases. Unfortunately for our health, they continue getting smarter and often adapt to withstand harsh environments or treatments that were once considered infallible. For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) has named antimicrobial resistance one of the top threats to global health in the 21st century.

As germs defy even the most tried-and-true interventions, researchers and entrepreneurs around the Florida High Tech Corridor have developed inventive methods of fighting back. Whether via novel environmental innovations or through drug discovery, these individuals and organizations are taking groundbreaking measures to combat disease-causing germs, both outside and inside the human body.

 

Lighting the Way to a Cleaner, Healthier Future

Mark Nathan, founder and chief science officer of Celebration’s Violet Defense, ventured in 2012 to develop a better germ-fighting solution.

Perpetually sick after traveling, Mark initially suspected he had a weak immune system. However, he quickly realized he was not alone among frequent travelers who unavoidably encounter germs in airplanes, bathrooms and everywhere in between.

“You go out with your team, you come home and you’re sick for two weeks,” Mark said. “Once you get better, you travel again and you’re sick for another two weeks.”

A problem-solver from an early age, Mark was determined to develop a solution that would bring clinical-level cleaning to everyday spaces and – after 10 years of exploring hundreds of ways to kill germs – Violet Defense was born. The company’s patented technology leverages the power of ultraviolet (UV) light to kill up to 99.9 percent of germs, including salmonella, norovirus and E. coli, as well as “superbugs” like MRSA.

Scientists have known about the germ-killing properties of UV light for more than a century. An environmentally friendly solution, UV is an ideal weapon in the fight against antimicrobial resistance because germs cannot develop a resistance to light. In a marketplace where standard UV sanitation systems can be prohibitively expensive and require full-time staffing, Violet Defense stands out.

“Using UV to disinfect surfaces isn’t new,” Mark said. “What is new is the ability to shrink it, which allows for mass production. As a function of mass production, we can effectively put that technology anywhere.”

Violet Defense packages the germ-fighting technology in the form of its flagship product, Surface & Air Germ Elimination (S.A.G.E.) UV, which comes in various sizes – from the largest nine-pound unit that covers a 15-foot by 15-foot space, to a portable unit that covers a 10-foot by 10-foot space and weighs less than 3 pounds. S.A.G.E. UV fights germs without harsh chemicals and is simple to use; all you have to do is plug it in.

“This technology can be as small as a book,” Mark said. “That means you can bring hospital-grade UV to whatever space that unit is deployed – whether it’s permanently installed in the room, or whether you just set it on your desk next to your keyboard.”

Violet Defense’s germ-fighting units entered the market in 2017 and can already be found in numerous locations across the country protecting travelers, health care patients, school children, hotel guests and athletes, including team members of the Orlando Magic.

Optimizing Existing Antibiotics

In situations where technology can’t stop harmful germs from entering the body, antibiotics are prescribed to kill the invading bacteria. However, over-prescribing or incorrectly prescribing antibiotics could have the opposite effect, resulting in antimicrobial resistance.

Without highly personalized information on their patients, doctors are more likely to prescribe powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics for illnesses that would be better addressed by a more targeted treatment. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control estimates 30 to 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary or incorrect.

Key to optimizing antibiotic use and infection control is the ability to process and analyze patient and facility data in real time. Health care administrators have traditionally tracked this data by hand, making it difficult to quickly and efficiently communicate critical information in real time to the doctors charged with writing prescriptions. Antibiotic Adjuvant, a client of UF Innovate | The Hub, has developed a software solution to address this problem.

“We’re trying to be better stewards of existing antibiotics so they remain useful for a longer period of time,” said CEO Guy LaTorre.

SmartSteward™ provides surveillance, diagnostics and reporting of infections and antibiotic usage for compliance and effective care. The startup’s SmartSteward software places real-time data – such as a patient’s clinical history, risk factors and the current facility’s microbiome – at a doctor’s fingertips during the prescribing process. Its point-of-care clinical decision support system and antibiotic recommendation engine provide doctors with optimized antibiotic recommendations to treat the infection while controlling for antibiotic resistance.

“Our folks are on the floor every week with doctors and nurses, looking at their workflow, learning how they do things and seeing what problems they encounter in the prescribing process. That’s a huge benefit for us, because the final product is intuitive and has all the features that the end-user wants.”

Resisting Resistance: Building a Better Antibiotic

Even with the right technology to enhance their decision-making abilities, doctors may still be challenged to prescribe the right antibiotic. The pace of drug resistance has surpassed the discovery of new treatments, which leaves a doctor’s toolbox wanting in the fight against life-threatening germs.

Research and development to discover a new antibiotic is scientifically and economically challenging, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which in 2012 added the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) provisions on promoting the pipeline of antibacterial and antifungal drugs to its Safety and Innovation Act.

Much of the work of antibiotic drug discovery has fallen upon the shoulders of university researchers, such as those at Shaw Lab at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, who are laying the groundwork for a new generation of antibiotics designed to target highly resistant ESKAPE pathogens.

Dubbed “ESKAPE” to represent the six highly resistant germs that “escape” conventional antibiotic interventions, these pathogens cause more than 65 percent of hospital-associated infections in the U.S.

Shaw Lab’s Lindsey “Les” Shaw, Ph.D., is no stranger to their devastating effects. At age 13, he had three pins surgically installed to help correct a genetic hip disorder. Two were contaminated by an ESKAPE pathogen, resulting in a nasty infection and five years of painful flareups. Les’ time in and around hospitals motivated his desire to understand the science of germs and infection, and eventually to establish the eponymous Shaw Lab at USF in 2007.

Working with experts in natural and synthetic chemistry, the team at Shaw Lab aims to understand how germs cause disease and to develop new treatments to cure the infections they cause. Scientists pit ESKAPE pathogens against thousands of different chemical molecules each year, hoping to identify a germ-killing “hit.” From there, they narrow in on the most promising hits, weeding out the ones that cause too much resistance in the bacteria they are meant to treat.

In addition to developing antibiotics, Shaw Lab is also developing novel approaches to combating antimicrobial resistance. For example, one compound is designed to target biofilms, protective matrices of proteins that can make even highly sensitive germs resistant to antibiotics.

“Our ultimate goal is to license our work to pharmaceutical companies,” Les said. “If I were to get one compound into a clinic in my lifetime, it would be a career well spent.”

The lab’s progress stems partially from a collaborative culture found in The Corridor, which has fostered interdisciplinary collaborations for Les with colleagues at USF, as well as chemists from the University of Central Florida and UF.

“I talk to people all over the country who do what I do, and they don’t have the same environment. Here, this kind of collaboration has been very organic. I can’t imagine I would have such a robust development program if it wasn’t for being in this local environment.”

Despite their varied approaches, experts from Shaw Lab, Violet Defense and Antibiotic Adjuvant would agree there’s not a moment to waste in the fight against life-threatening germs. Germs continually adapt, making antimicrobial resistance a constant threat to our health. However, through cross-disciplinary collaboration and varied approaches, researchers have hope of mitigating the lethal complications posed by resistant germs.

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