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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 00 > Article

Infallible Fabrics
by Paul Karr

When Research Reporter first described Karen Leonas’ work eight years ago (November 1992), the UGA textile science professor had a very specific focus: to design safer medical garments to protect hospital workers from contracting infectious disease.

But the very techniques she used in that research have pushed the frontiers in development of fabrics for all kinds of purposes — from surgery to schools.

In particular, Leonas’ team — including both a microbiologist and a lab equipment technician — has revolutionized the use of laser scanning confocal microscopy, a method of analyzing how bacteria can penetrate the mesh of different fabrics. The technique uses tiny synthetic spheres — roughly the same size and shape as Staphylococcus bacteria — to trace the penetration through tiny spaces in the fabrics. Florescent green dye tags and super-powerful electron microscopes help technicians capture and photograph those movements in fine detail.

“Usually people think of fabric as simply a flat, two-dimensional thing, but it’s actually three-dimensional; it contains void and nonvoid spaces,” Leonas said. “We’ve been successful with this research, I think, because we see it that way.”

Among the research findings:

  • The type of liquid (blood, sweat or urine, for instance) doesn’t change the amount of fluid that penetrates a fabric, but it does affect the rate of penetration.
  • The fabric’s physical makeup is absolutely crucial, no matter what manufacturer makes it: Certain types of fabric nearly always fail to “block” bacteria, while others usually succeed.
  • A polyethylene (“Saran Wrap”-like) film greatly improves surgical apparel’s ability to keep out bacteria, though it does pose additional challenges.

“The problem with polyethylene is that it becomes very uncomfortable,” Leonas said. “There’s no air flow; doctors don’t want to sweat bullets while they’re trying to operate. So the doctors’ comfort will need to be addressed by the manufacturers.

“I really enjoy what I do,” she said. “We feel that our job here is to help make the medical environment safer. The information we gather can be used by the manufacturers to better protect both the doctors and the patients.”

Leonas’ work doesn’t include garment design, but some of her students are working on this logical extension of her research. One of her graduate students, for example, has developed a composite finish for surgical gowns that incorporates anti-microbial and repellent fluorocarbon compounds.

As another outgrowth of her work with anti-microbial substances, her lab recently began a pilot project in an elementary school to measure the effectiveness of various brands of mold-inhibiting carpets. This research project was underwritten by a state-funded industry group concerned about keeping Georgia’s carpet industry competitive on the global market.

For previous story, access ../92f/surgery.html.

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3D fabric

UGA researchers can study a three-dimensional view of how bacteria can penetrate different fabrics using laser confocal microscopy. (Photo courtesy of Karen Leonas)