DSU professor plays key role in breakthrough skin infection research

Image of blue cytoplasm | Image courtesy of Peter Allen of UC Santa Barbara, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Last week, a report released by the Los Alamos National Laboratory announced a new breakthrough antibacterial approach that could revolutionize the treatment and prevention of serious skin infections, a breakthrough deriving in part from investigatory work of Dr. Rico E. Del Sesto, who now teaches at Dixie State University as an assistant professor of chemistry.

The breakthrough was detailed in a manuscript appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and was part of a multi-institutional effort between Los Alamos National Laboratory, Northern Arizona University, University of California-Santa Barbara and Dixie State University. According to the manuscript, researchers have developed new liquid materials – called ionic liquids – that can decrease survival of biofilm encapsulated bacteria by more than 99.9 percent. These biofilm-protected bacteria account for some 80 percent of total bacterial infections in humans and are 50 to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics than simpler bacterial infections.

Dixie State University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Rico E. Del Sesto, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Public Relations, St. George News
Dixie State University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Rico E. Del Sesto, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Public Relations, St. George News

Del Sesto served as a principal investigator for the project, which began during his tenure at Los Alamos National Laboratory (between 2006 and 2012). He noted that the 80 percent of human infections associated with biofilm-protected microorganisms, and the resulting skin infections, are responsible for at least 10 percent of hospital visits. According to the research, these new ionic liquids enhance the ability of antimicrobials to penetrate the skin and reach infections, which often lie just below the outermost layer of skin. In terms of efficacy and toxicity to human cells, the materials outperformed bleach when treating infections.

Del Sesto said that biofilm-encapsulated microorganisms are typically difficult to eradicate due to the protective nature of the biofilm. However, these new materials are unique in that they can break down the biofilm and expose the bacteria to conditions in which they cannot survive, especially when used in tandem with known antibiotics that are typically not effective against those bacteria.

These ionic liquids are derived from known “generally regarded as safe,” or GRAS, compounds, Del Sesto said, and the research has shown their minimal toxicity to human cells.

“We knew that the ionic liquids would bring unique properties that standard materials could not, but it was amazing to see how effective they were as antimicrobials compared to bleach while still being fairly safe for human skin,” Del Sesto said. “There are many exciting directions to take these materials and applications to further explore – hopefully they can make a difference in the medical field and in people’s lives in the near future.”

Del Sesto said he brought the materials, design and synthesis with him when he came to Dixie State in 2012. He added that researchers are continuing to develop more effective and less toxic materials and plan to move toward in vivo studies in collaboration with UCSB.

“Over the last year, there have been four undergraduate students involved in various research aspects of this project, performing chemical synthesis and materials design,” Del Sesto said. “Students will continue to be part of the ongoing efforts in this exciting area of science.”

For additional information on the research or to view the entire study, click here.

About Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company and URS Corporation for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health and global security concerns.

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