Got A Superbug? Bring In The Robots

Feb 3, 2013
Originally published on February 3, 2013 6:16 pm

Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem at hospitals across the country. The bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and Clostridium difficile, are difficult to prevent and impossible to treat.

"The problem is expanding, and it's going up and up and up," explains Dr. Trish Perl of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "We're running out of antibiotics to treat, and so the challenge is can we prevent?"

At Johns Hopkins, doctors have turned to a new technology to prevent the so-called superbugs: robots. The machines spray toxic doses of hydrogen peroxide into sealed hospital rooms, killing any bacteria.

Germ-killing Robots

Before the robots can be switched on, the rooms are made ready by a technician. Michael Duclos showed host Laura Sullivan, host of weekends on All Things Considered, how he prepares a room by closing off air vents and opening up drawers.

"We want to get the hydrogen peroxide on all the surfaces," he said.

The last step in the process is to tape the door to the room shut to keep the toxic hydrogen peroxide mist from getting out. For 30 minutes, the robots spray a colorless, odorless vapor. If a person walked in, he wouldn't be able to breath or open his eyes.

Saving Lives

When the robots are done infecting, the room looks the same, but is clean and safe for patients. Since Johns Hopkins started using the machines, it has seen the number of untreatable infections fall by a stunning 64 percent.

Doctors there say they hope other hospitals will follow suit.

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Let's turn now to another story about health. This one far from Pennsylvania Avenue. In the surgical intensive care unit at Johns Hopskins Hospital in Baltimore.

Here in this ward, a simple idea is saving people's lives. You expect to go to a hospital to get better, but sometimes, in extreme cases, the hospital can actually make you worse.

Dr. Trish Perl is an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins, and she vividly remembers one of her patients.

DR. TRISH PERL: It was a person who actually had had lymphoma, had been treated, had survived and was doing very well, and again ended up getting an infected heart valve and, you know, essentially actually died from the infection. And he survived the cancer and then died from an infection.

SULLIVAN: That is the last thing any patient wants to hear: Surviving the disease only to have your body attacked by something you picked up while in the hospital. It's becoming a growing problem in hospitals nationwide. They're called superbugs, drug-resistant bacteria that have evolved past even our most potent antibiotics.

PERL: In the past 24 hours, out of the new people I've seen, I mean, I would say that probably a quarter of them have some kind of resistant organism. I mean, I think for the average patient, it's unbelievably rare. If you took all the patients in this hospital, these are rare events. For my practice, it's common.

SULLIVAN: Perl says it's not that hospitals are breeding grounds for these bugs. You can find them just as easily in a supermarket or your own home. They live in our environment. It's just that healthy people can fight them off easily. But in a hospital, people's bodies are already in trouble. That's why they're here. And in hospitals, all kinds of doctors, nurses and equipment are moving from one room to the next and the bugs are hitching a ride.

PERL: The problem is expanding, and it's going up and up and up. We're running out of antibiotics to treat, and so the challenge is, can we prevent? You know, if you came into this hospital, what can we do to make sure that you don't acquire one of these multidrug-resistant organisms?

SULLIVAN: So a few years ago, Johns Hopkins tried something new. They turned to robots. Is this it?


SULLIVAN: Is it wrong that I think it looks like R2-D2?

DUCLOS: I think it's like a washing machine or like a residential trash can. But these are the robots.

SULLIVAN: Mike Duclos is the technician here in the ward who sets the robots up. They're big purple beasts with round vents like eyes and cords coming out of the back like tails. The idea is to have these robots blast the room with hydrogen peroxide. But first, Duclos has to close off the room.

DUCLOS: Before we even start that, we're going to seal the vents off in the room, tape some things off, stage the room. We want to get the hydrogen peroxide on all the surfaces.

SULLIVAN: Then he rolls the machines inside, shuts the door and begins taping the door shut.

DUCLOS: The room itself is taped off from the outside.

SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. For half an hour, the robots spray a colorless, odorless hydrogen peroxide gas. You wouldn't die if you walk in, but you wouldn't be able to breathe or open your eyes. The superbugs, however, are toast. Then the robots send out another chemical to turn the hydrogen peroxide into water, making it safe again for people.

This month, Johns Hopkins released a study that found that the rate of drug-resistant superbug infections has fallen by 64 percent, which is exactly what doctors like Trish Perl are hoping for, because they'd rather do the job of fixing the problem the patient came in with, not a problem they got in the hospital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.