We are decidedly losing the war against superbugs, and with a projected annual death toll by 2050 of 10 million people. David Brenner would like to stop that.

Why you should listen

David Brenner directs the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and has numerous distinctions within his field such as the Oxford University Weldon Prize and the Radiation Research Society Failla Gold Medal Award. Founded by a student of Marie Curie more than a century ago, the Center for Radiological Research is committed to exploiting all forms of radiation to improve medical care.

As Brenner sees it, radiation is very much a two-edged sword -- used in the right way it has revolutionized modern medicine, such as through CT scans and as a cure for many cancers. But radiation used in the wrong way can be harmful. To maximize the benefits of the many different types of radiation, we need to understand exactly how they affect us, from our DNA to the whole person.

Over the past six years, Brenner and his team have applied this idea in working towards a safe way to kill drug-resistant bacteria such as MRSA, as well as airborne microbes such as influenza and TB, using a unique type of ultra-violet light, known as far-UVC.

In short, it is pure physics -- far-UVC light is safe for us because it cannot even penetrate through the dead-cell layer on the surface of our skin or the tear layer on the surface of our eyes. But because bacteria and viruses are physically very small, far-UVC light does have enough penetration to efficiently kill them.

Brenner envisions a wide range of applications for this new weapon in the war against superbugs, such as in operating rooms during surgery to minimize the risk of surgical site infections, in schools to prevent the spread of influenza or measles, in shelters to prevent the spread of TB, or in airplanes and airports to prevent the global spread of viruses like H1N1.

David Brenner’s TED talk

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