The new substance could help fight the spread of the flu if applied to doorknobs or other surfaces where germs tend to accumulate, says Jianzhu Chen, MIT professor of biology. "Because of the limited efficacies with existing flu vaccines and antivirals, there's room for other, complementary approaches," said Chen.
In a typical year, 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized from influenza virus infection, and 36,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If an avian flu pandemic broke out, as many experts fear, the death toll could be in the millions.
Influenza is spread when viruses released by an infected person accumulate on surfaces, where other people pick them up. Stopping the viruses before they infect people could prevent some flu cases, says Chen.
The new substance can do just that, by killing influenza viruses before they infect new hosts. The "antimicrobial paint," which can be sprayed or brushed onto surfaces, consists of spiky polymers that poke holes in the membranes that surround influenza viruses.
One of the benefits of the new polymer coating is that it is highly unlikely that bacteria will develop resistance to it, Klibanov said. Bacteria can become resistant to traditional antibiotics by adjusting the biochemical pathways targeted by antibiotics, but it would be difficult for bacteria to evolve a way to stop the polymer spikes from tearing holes in their membranes.
"It's hard to develop resistance to someone sticking a knife in your body," Klibanov said.