Germ-Zapping Robots Use Powerful, Pulsed UV Light to Improve Patient Safety at University Hospital

November 15, 2013

San Antonio-based disinfecting technology acquired by University Health System

It’s been called a germ-zapping robot — and there’s a passing resemblance to R2D2 if you squint your eyes.

But this rolling disinfection device from a San Antonio-based tech company has enough research behind it that some 200 hospitals and health facilities — including UCLA, Boston Children’s Hospital and the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center — have begun using them to keep patients safe from dangerous pathogens.

University Health System is acquiring three of the devices, and plans to deploy two of them in patient rooms, critical care areas and operating rooms throughout University Hospital — typically as one patient leaves and before the next one moves in. A third one, obtained through a grant from the City of San Antonio to Xenex, will be used in the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at the Robert B. Green Campus downtown, where patients are particularly vulnerable to infections.

A local government-owned hospital is the only other San Antonio health facility using the device.

The Xenex room disinfection system uses a powerful, pulsed-xenon ultraviolet light to kill all sorts of infectious organisms. One study showed the treatment was 20 times more effective than scrubbing with traditional chemical cleansers.

“Like all healthcare organizations, University Health System has had to redouble its efforts against any number of infectious disease threats in recent years,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, an infection disease specialist at UT Medicine and staff epidemiologist at University Hospital. “These threats include organisms which have become increasingly resistant to available antibiotics. This new technology will be a welcome addition to our current, aggressive infection control efforts — all of them aimed at protecting our patients.”

Typically, the device is rolled into a room after housekeeping staff finishes a thorough cleaning and sanitizing. The operator then programs the machine and clears the room. Up pops the saucer-shaped light source, and for five to 10 minutes the room is bathed in powerful pulses of UV light — 25,000 times more powerful than sunlight, and capable of killing such infectious threats as Clostridium difficile, norovirus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

The technology was developed by two Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologists who saw a prototype of the device being used overseas to combat highly drug resistant strains of airborne tuberculosis. They adapted and refined the device for commercial applications and started the company, which is now called Xenex Disinfection Services, in 2008. When Rackspace co-founder Morris Miller, an early investor, became CEO, the headquarters and manufacturing operation moved from Austin to San Antonio.

A number of hospitals that have purchased the Xenex system have published studies on its effectiveness. One study of three hospitals in North Carolina found that use of the device reduced the rate of hospital-acquired MRSA infections by 56 percent over a six-month period. A Massachusetts hospital achieved a 53 percent reduction in hospital-acquired C. difficile infections.

University Hospital began using the devices this week after training sessions for staff.