“The Next Generation of Protective Textiles”: Respiratory masks that kill off Corona viruses and are washable – Dr. Katja Uhlig

Respiratory masks could soon be experiencing a minor revolution: it is said that, in the foreseeable future, they will kill off viruses on their surfaces already and be washable at 40°C. It is on this precise aspect that Dr. Katja Uhlig and Dr. Sebastian Kersting of Fraunhofer IZI-BB and Dr. Erik Wischerhoff of Fraunhofer IAP are doing research in the Potsdam Science Park. But the combination of an antiviral surface and cleanability presents a complex challenge to the research work.

Their name might sound unspectacular to the ears of scientific amateurs, but they are able to achieve astonishing results: antimicrobial peptides, known in short as AMP. Should the plans of the scientists working on the project “The Next Generation of Protective Textiles” come to fruition, it may be possible, in the future, to use AMP to inactivate Corona viruses on the surface of a respiratory mask. Scientists also speak here of inactivation when viruses, as a result of external influences, lose their quality of infectiousness. In the case of antimicrobial peptides (AMP), this is a matter of combinations that are also to be found in large numbers in nature and which are constructed out of the same elements as proteins but are significantly shorter in length. In studies and laboratory experiments they have proven themselves to be very efficient whenever it was a matter of inactivating viruses or bacteria. The AMP are viewed as a hope for the future because of their efficacy – and also because they are considered to be an alternative or supplement to antibiotics.

With regard to the planned deployment of respiratory masks, the scientists need to pay heed to certain specifics: “AMPs require a certain degree of freedom, i.e. they need space to work in. Should there be pollutants, such as a large number of inactivated viruses on a surface, the AMPs are no longer able to function”, explains Dr. Katja Uhlig, head of the working group “Microsystems for in-vitro Cell Models” at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses, IZI-BB. For this reason, one would have to wash out the textiles in order to remove those inactivated viruses.

The Binding Matrix: Responsive Polymers

In order that the AMP might retain their full effectiveness over longer periods of time, the research team intends to combine them with responsive polymers. These polymers take on, through the influence of temperature – for example in a 40°C wash – repellent properties and thus enable the antiviral surface to regenerate itself again. Put more simply: the inactivated viruses can easily be rinsed off using warm water as the polymer swells up, pushes the pollution from the surface and thus completely restores the antiviral effectiveness. In this way, a respiratory mask could be cleaned and reused many times. It is precisely this combination that presents a challenge in its realisation, as Dr. Katja Uhlig explains: “One has to anchor a sufficient number of AMP at suitable positions in the polymer in order that the AMP might be able to reach and inactivate the viruses and, at the same time, the polymer must retain its regenerative properties.”

“The Next Generation of Protective Textiles” – a Research Project of ten Fraunhofer Institutes

Research into antiviral, washable respiratory masks thereby only forms a small part of the initiative “The Next Generation of Protective Textiles”. At the centre of this are approaches to the production of improved, high-quality protective textiles. In total, ten institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft are participating in the project. A truly major project that arose out of an ideas competition which the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft had instigated internally in March 2020. The scientists at Fraunhofer IAP and Fraunhofer IZI-BB in the Potsdam Science Park are thereby developing antiviral coatings as a main focus of attention alongside two other project groups. They have thereby specialised in the combining of antiviral properties with regenerative ones. As this is a very complex subject area and new approaches are being tried out, Fraunhofer IZI-BB is, together with two other institutes, undertaking the biological analytics – one of the specialist fields of Dr. Katja Uhlig.

When the first antiviral, washable respiratory masks could appear on the market

Due to the complexity of the project it is correspondingly difficult to predict when the new product developments will be appearing on the market. Dr. Erik Wischerhoff of Fraunhofer IAP explains with respect to the washable, antiviral masks: “It is actually not particularly easy to give a time frame. Once the project has been concluded we, as a Fraunhofer Institute, must find an industrial enterprise that is willing to put the solution into practice. In the ideal case it will be realisable directly. However, it is also possible that, for a specific application, further development work might be necessary”, says the Fraunhofer IAP scientist. “Depending on the company and further factors, I consider a period of between two and three years to be realistic in such a case.”

The Environment in the Potsdam Science Park creates potential for innovations

There is therefore still a little ground to be covered before research has been completed and the researched technologies find their way onto the market. Until then, the teams led by Dr. Katja Uhlig and Dr. Erik Wischerhoff will continue their work on the combination of antimicrobial peptides and responsive polymers. They intend to have completed their research work by the end of October 2021. Dr. Katja Uhlig is optimistic that this research may also be able to help with possible future pandemics. “The AMP are also effective against other viruses and against bacteria. With the AMP we will be able to eliminate a multitude of pathogens“, says the scientist.

Both researchers appreciate the possibilities of inter-institutional research and development offered by the Potsdam Science Park. “The bundling of different institutes at one location offers many advantages. The potential for innovations is great,” according to Dr. Uhlig. “Also, the location has developed strongly. A lot has been invested in its infrastructure, and there are more day care centres and shopping possibilities”, says the head of the working group Microsystems for in-vitro Cell Models.

This blog and the projects of Standortmanagement Golm GmbH in the Potsdam Science Park are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.

Image credits: Dr. Katja Uhlig © Katja Uhlig (Photo origin: iklick Fotostudio)