Silver does more than kill bacteria

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Scientists in Hong Kong uncover the biological mechanism behind the age-old treatment of wounds with silver.

Silver has for centuries been used to treat and prevent infection, and its wound-healing properties are well known. Less well understood is exactly how the metal acts as such an effective antimicrobial and healing agent. Kenneth Wong and others at the University of Hong Kong recently investigated the wound-healing properties of silver nanoparticles, and have shown that they do more than simply kill bacteria.

Wounds heal following a complex combination of blood coagulation, tissue inflammation and remodelling, and the best medical interventions are those that prevent or at least minimise scarring. Silver has long been used to treat a variety of diseases, and silver’s antibacterial effect is thought to be due to its penetration of cell walls and alteration of microbial DNA.

Comparison of burn healing times in laboratory animals between treatment with silver nanoparticles (ND), common antibiotics (A+M) and a no-treatment control.

But the new research, published in the journal ChemMedChem (subscription required), indicates that silver goes further than this and modifies cytokines – the enzymes involved in cell growth and movement – leading to reduced inflammation and an increased rate of healing.

Wong and his colleagues describe wounds treated with silver nanoparticles healing in around 25 days, whereas it takes 29 days with common antibiotics, and 35 days with wounds left untreated. This translates into considerable cost savings in medical care.

With a scale size of around 10 nanometres, Wong says that silver can be used in a pure form and made into a stable solution, and also has the advantage that with a large surface area, the dose can be reduced. “The next step is to evaluate whether there is a receptor for silver, and what signalling pathways are affected,” says Wong. “Furthermore, we are going to investigate if other nano-metals or compounds can be applied in disease models such as haemostasis and tissue regeneration.”

MIT-based medical scientist Rutledge Ellis-Behnke regards the Hong Kong group’s research as groundbreaking, saying: “Silver has been used for over a thousand years in traditional Chinese medicine for wound healing, but this is the first time that a hint of the true mechanism has been shown.”

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.