Smart antimicrobials are a class of organic or inorganic materials that achieve antimicrobial functionality through mechanisms that might be considered to be “smart.” We take this to mean that they exhibit an inherent stimulus-response mechanism that acts in manner that is appropriate and proportional to the microbial threat. Smart anti-microbials are of many kinds, but often fall into the class of materials commonly known as smart materials.
All that said, the market is quite liberal about what constitutes the “smartness” in “smart antimicrobials,” and in some cases the term “smart antimicrobials” may be more of a marketing term of art than a term of substance. While in definitional mode we note that antimicrobials may be used either as drugs or to protect surfaces and our only interest here is with the latter. There are overlaps between the two areas, but the drug industry has a wholly different business model and market model than the one that we are concerned with here.
As the analysis in our report shows, n-tech expects smart antimicrobials to be a growing and profitable business.
Smart Antimicrobials: State of the Technology
Our focus on surfaces means primarily that in this report we discuss coatings, surface patterning or smart materials that are embedded into surfaces. In any case, smart antimicrobials should be considered as part of a bigger program to develop smart materials. The following table profiles the functionalities that can be embodied in smart antimicrobials.
Source: n-tech Research
Current Market Trends
n-tech published its most recent report on this topic in 2015. But our research indicates that markets for smart antimicrobials continue to gain acceptance in healthcare-related markets and vibrant growth in this sector can be expected through 2027. However, smart antimicrobials continue to face challenges in non-healthcare markets, where a good sales story is needed to sell this kind of coating, which has yet to take off in the market.
On the supply side of the market, we are seeing a maturing of technology, which should help with acceptance. In particular the extensive work that is currently being undertaken on peptides suggests that smart antimicrobials that are selective in their ability to kill microbes are approaching full-scale commercialization. In addition, we are seeing a growing range of truly smart antimicrobials that are multifunctional, including self-cleaning and/or self-healing capabilities as well as microbe killing functionality.
n-tech expects that most activity in smart antimicrobial coatings and surfaces to continue be directed to implanted medical devices, other medical devices and system components, some textiles and clothing (e.g. curtains and scrubs), and specific high-touchpoint building surfaces. We also anticipate that in non-healthcare markets, the biggest opportunities will be in the applications in clothing and textiles, water filters, buildings, food processing units, transportation and military applications.
Concern with HAIs and resistance to conventional antimicrobials growing as a driver for smart antimicrobials: Bacterial infections continue to be a concern globally and especially in hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), as well as through contaminations from clothes, fruits and vegetables and other such infections acquired specifically from surfaces. In addition, many important kinds of conventional antibacterials have proved ineffective against the latest pathogens. A secondary factor, but one still worth considering is that aging populations in developed countries tends to make healthcare issues of more concern than they once would have been.
Traditional cleaning processes could promote smart antimicrobials at the right price: The use of conventional cleaning methods and the use of disinfectants with varying depth continue to be a pillar for most cleaning protocols. However, they have various shortcomings such as (1) the repetitive need for cleaning or (2) disinfecting because of shorter performance time that leads to growth of pathogens in-between the two cleaning cycles. Also, human negligence or error can keep surfaces unclean and unhygienic creating incidences such as the spread of infections despite stringent cleaning protocols.
The specific opportunities, as n-tech sees it, for antimicrobial surfaces include medical implants, surgical equipment, kitchen surfaces, appliances, walls and floors, consumer products, health club equipment, furniture, clothing/textiles, etc.
As smart antimicrobials move from the lab into the marketplace, there is a growing need for marketing and technical support: For all these reasons, as n-tech sees it, antimicrobial coatings and surfaces continue to present a way to inhibit growth and spread of pathogens onto surfaces. But this will only occur if the price is right (conventional cleaning fluids are quite inexpensive) and if the new smart technology can be demonstrated to work better than what has gone before. This will take significant resources on the part of the smart antimicrobial firms; especially in terms of marketing and messaging.
In addition, there is an ongoing need to provide rigorous safety testing. Beyond this, there is a need to test novel antimicrobials for various types of environmental considerations such as UV exposure, damage from washing, cutting, and scuffing.
Ongoing Research and Development Needs for Smart Antimicrobials
There are a number of R&D concerns that are perennials, but which need to be increasingly emphasized as smart antimicrobials become a commercial reality. These are not just technical matters, but selling features that are being addressed here.
Durability: A primary challenge for antimicrobial coatings will be to sustain the efficacy for longer durations and provide cost effective and durable antimicrobial protection.
Multifunctionality: Product developments in the smart antimicrobial space are extending towards building multi-modal products where coating the surfaces with smart microbial will perform multiple actions including inhibiting, killing and stopping the growth of pathogens.
Lower concentrations of valuable or dangerous substances: Development of smart antimicrobial coatings for medical and non-medical applications alike need to take multiple actions against microbes at lower concentrations.
Covering large surfaces: Technologies are in development for applications of smart antimicrobials on large surfaces. This work includes non-porous polymers, strengthening adhesion and cohesion of chemical to the surfaces, and development of environment friendly flux of detached antimicrobial.
Role of silver: The role of silver in smart antimicrobials still has yet to be determined. Silver—especially nanosilver—has long played a role in antibacterial products. What has yet to be determined is to what degree silver will be used in smart antibacterials. Some opportunities for its use include surface-independent antibacterial coatings, multi-functional coatings, and developments in bio-films.