New technology to treat burns


    The dressing is harmful to pathogenic bacteria, and helps to prevent secondary infection in vulnerable areas of skin.

    Prof Leon Dicks and his team at Stellenbosch University have revolutionised burn treatment with their new dressing.
    (Images: Leon Dicks)

    • Engela Duvenage
      Media: Faculty of Science,
      Stellenbosch University
      +27 21 808 2684

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    A South African microbiologist has applied modern technology and science to develop a revolutionary dressing to treat burn wounds. The new dressing is the first of its kind and will reduce the risk of secondary infections.

    The wound dressing, developed by Prof Leon Dicks and a research team from Stellenbosch University, is an important innovation in the treatment of burns as it contains ingredients to fight the infections that are especially common in burn wound patients.

    A solution to infections

    Dicks explains that when people sustain burn wounds, the protective layer of the skin is removed. “This exposes underlying skin, which then makes them very prone to secondary infections,” he says.

    Infection is a major complication of burns. According to the peer-reviewed Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, statistics from the US alone show that from one million patients, an estimated 10000 die from secondary microbial infections.

    He points out that traditional methods used to treat burns are effective, but only as long as the patient doesn’t develop an infection that is difficult to treat with conventional antibiotics.

    Many bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics such as penicillin, methicillin and vancomycin, all commonly used to treat infections.

    The new dressing offers a solution to antibiotic resistance, using antimicrobial peptides and nanofibres.

    Each oval dressing patch incorporates broad-spectrum antimicrobial peptides, or proteins, that are resistant to certain strains of bacteria, into a nanofibre dressing.

    The nanofibres used in the dressing material are produced using an electrospinning process, which forms thin polymer threads using an electrical current of 10 000 volts or more.

    “As the polymer is spun from the one charged pole to the other, the nanofibres are deposited onto a collector plate,” explains Dicks. Millions of these nanofibres are then collected onto a specific surface to form a dressing.

    The other advantage is that the dressing releases antimicrobial peptides slowly over several days, which means it only has to be changed once a week. “This is not the case with current dressings on the market,” he says.

    By altering the nanoparticles the dressing becomes part of the new skin and supports the healing process.

    The antimicrobial peptides kill bacterial pathogens by forming pores in their cells. This action prevents pathogens from building up resistance to the peptides.

    “This is an enormous advantage, especially with so many pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics.”

    Two types of dressing

    Dicks and his research team have developed another variation of the nanofibre dressing, using living bacterial cells.

    “In both cases the active ingredient is securely trapped in nanofibres and slowly released from the dressing,” he explains.

    The dressing is available in a biodegradable and non-biodegradable form.

    “The biodegradable dressing forms part of the skin, while the non-biodegradable dressing is designed to be replaced, just as normal dressings are done,” he says.

    With the biodegradable dressing the nanofibres act as a support material to strengthen the skin. “It works much like biodegradable stitches,” says Dicks.

    Rewarding innovation

    The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) BHP Billiton Awards recently awarded Dicks the TW Kambule Award in recognition of his contribution to science, engineering, technology and innovation in South Africa.

    These NSTF awards are important as they celebrate the work of South Africa’s scientists, engineers and technologists working in areas of research that are innovative, forward thinking and relevant to South Africa and the rest of the world.

    Dicks says the award is a great honour. “Although a true scientist never does this to receive awards, it is always good to know that your efforts are appreciated,” he says.

    He also commends his research team for their involvement in the research project. “It is equally important to recognise all the students that have been involved in the research and innovation. This is very much a team effort.”

    Successful research partnership

    The wound dressing has been patented by a leading South African pharmaceutical company, Cipla Medpro.

    Dr Nic de Jongh at Cipla Medpro describes the wound dressing as one example of the kind of innovation that can be achieved through collaboration between the private sector and research institutions in South Africa.

    Dicks says the product needs another 15 months of research before the dressing can be released for final testing and evaluation.

    Availability of the product will depend on how soon production of the dressing can start. The partners have to find a company that has the facilities to produce large quantities of the antimicrobial nanofibre dressing.

    Dicks says the funding and support of Cipla Medpro was key to ensure the success of the wound dressing project.

    Although South African researchers have to compete against big international teams with vast resources and funding, he believes local scientists have an advantage.

    “The one thing about South Africans is that we are extremely innovative and we tend to think a little broader than many of our international counterparts, which is useful in this space.”

    Slideshow image courtesy of Eureka Hyman’s photostream on