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Plasma-activated liquids – fighting superbugs, food bacteria and cancer

Posted: 7 February, 2017

We caught up with Dr Daniela Boehm, a postdoctoral researcher at DIT who is working on understanding the principles of plasma-activated liquids, which have potential applications for battling superbugs, reducing harmful bacteria in food, healing wounds and fighting cancer.

Daniela Boehm - Research

Daniela was recently awarded a prestigious Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) from Science Foundation Ireland.She will soon be based at the Environmental Sustainability and Health Institute in the new Greenway Hub, a centre for research and innovation in the heart of DIT Grangegorman. 

CC: Did you always have an affinity for science?

DB: In school my favourite subjects were biology and chemistry. My dad has a PhD in Chemistry so the interest probably came from that side of the family. Throughout my studies, it was always the research work that I enjoyed the most.

CC: What inspired you to focus on plasma as your research area?

DB: It was a complete accident! My PhD and my first two postdoctorates focused on blood, trying to produce red blood cells. I came across a job ad from DIT that had plasma in the title. For me, plasma was blood, so I was thinking, ‘Oh something related to blood, I’ll have a look.’ It was only when I read the details that I realised that this cold plasma was something completely different and new to me. I wasn’t even sure if I should apply. But they were looking for people with experience in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell culture and I thought, ‘Well yeah, I can grow cells.’ I was still really surprised when I got the interview and delighted when I was picked for the project.    

Can you briefly explain what ‘cold plasma’ is?

Plasma is the fourth state of matter. You have solid, liquid, gas and you have plasma. Plasma is an ionised gas. Lightening is a good example of a very hot plasma, thousands of degrees. I work with cold plasma, which is an ionised gas where the temperature is more-or-less room temperature. Cold plasma consists of a lot of reactive chemical species, so if you apply it to a bacteria, it will attack the bacteria. In terms of the applications, you hear about superbugs in hospitals a lot. Plasma can be used to decontaminate surfaces, for example medical devices, mobile phones. Recently, there’s been a lot of research applying cold plasma in the food industry. If you treat foods with cold plasma you can inactivate micro-organisms that might be on the surface of the food and therefore extend the shelf life of the food products so they won’t spoil as quickly. You can also reduce potentially harmful bacteria, for example e coli, or salmonella, which could cause an outbreak of illness. Plasma also has medical applications. If you have a chronic wound that won’t heal and won’t respond to any treatments, there have been some really good results achieved where the plasma is basically killing off the bacteria in the wound and also stimulating the cells of the body to regrow. There are also studies that have shown that the use of cold plasma can kill cancer cells and may help to eradicate tumours.

Daniela Boehm - Image 2

Can you tell me a bit about your Starting Investigator Research Grant project which has recently been funded by Science Foundation Ireland?  

My project is focusing on plasma-activated liquids. Plasma itself is a gas, but you can use it to treat liquids. A lot of the effects we see from the gas plasma, you also find with the plasma-treated liquids. There are benefits of having plasma in a liquid form: it’s storable, it’s transportable, you don’t need to have a plasma device on hand, it’s more manageable. My research proposal is starting with the basics: trying to characterise what kind of chemical changes are happening in the liquids when you treat them with plasma and how these plasma-activated liquids act on bio-molecules, for example on proteins, on liquids, on carbohydrates, so on the building blocks of cells. The next step is to see how they act on the cells themselves, on micro-organisms on the one hand, and on human cells and animal cells on the other, to see what the potential applications for microbial decontamination are, or the possible use of plasma-activated liquids for cancer treatment. The idea is to try to find out what are the underlying mechanisms, how these plasma-activated liquids work and from there, to see how that can be applied. Another big aspect is the safety of it all. There is potential danger for decontamination. If you want to use plasma-activated liquid as a hand-wash to reduce bacteria, you want to be sure that it’s not harming the cells of the body.

What does it mean to you as a researcher to get this funding from Science Foundation Ireland?

It’s a really big step for me to build up my own independent research career. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Dr Paula Bourke and Dr PJ Cullen in the Food and Health Research Centre at DIT. I’ve had a lot of support and I’ve had a lot of possibilities to go off on a bit of a tangent, which I think is a big part of research. If you have an interesting idea, you have that bit of freedom to see where it goes. I’ll also be supervising my first PhD student. There are a limited number of postdoctoral research positions in higher education so after a while, you’ve exploited your opportunities. This funding is helping me to get out of that loop.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

I hope to continue on with research, find my own niche within plasma research, or something different. I would like to pass on my passion for science and research to others, especially through the supervision of PhD students.

What are you most excited about in terms of your move to the new ESHI research facility in DIT Grangegorman?

It’s a little bit like Christmas, all these great new toys that I can’t wait to explore. In terms of equipment and facilities, it’s state of the art. One of the big advantages is that it’s all concentrated in one place dedicated solely to research. There are a lot of facilities in DIT currently, but they’re spread out across the city. There will be so many opportunities for exchange of ideas and collaboration. It’s exciting!