Ten years ago, Jeff Deal stuck pie plates on the wall in his brother’s garage, swiped them with infectious staph bacteria, then turned on an ultraviolet light robot the two had invented. Its rays cleaned the plates sterile.
Now, after a real-world trial last year in Ebola-stricken Liberia, the irradiating robot — as science-fiction as that might sound — has been shown to have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives in hospitals each year.
The True-D device just produced astounding results in a Duke University study involving more than 600,000 patients in rooms that had been conventionally cleaned after a patient who had highly infectious diseases. Instances of new patients picking up the virus declined by more than 30 percent when a cleaned room also was treated with ultraviolet rays.
The machine, it turned out, wiped out the bacteria in the nooks and crannies of equipment that washing didn’t reach.
“This is the first well-controlled study that shows these techniques can make a meaningful difference in patient outcomes,” Deverick J. Anderson, Duke Medicine infectious disease specialist, said in as news release.
“We knew the results would be positive, but holy moly,” said Deal, 61, of West Ashley. “The potential for saving lives is staggering.”
Deal explains it in terms of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. One in every 25 patients contracts an infection in hospitals in the United States — some 722,000 per year — and one in every 10 of them dies from it. Using the machine could mean hundreds of thousands of illnesses and tens of thousands of deaths prevented, as well as billions of dollars saved, he said.
Deal already knew how valuable the little robot could be. In 2014, he trained Ebola clinic workers in Liberia on how to use it for two weeks as the hemorrhagic fever killed hundreds of people around him. Tru-D SmartUVC, the Memphis, Tenn., company now holding a patent for the device, donated two of the $100,000-plus machines.
Going to work each day meant laboriously donning the heavy hazmat suit then fighting off the heat, breathing under the mask to do the job. Deal is a tall, quiet man with a pastoral demeanor and a measured voice. He fought emotions to keep that demeanor intact as he described the horrors of the disease.
He knew the robot would work. Earlier tests with the U.S. Army had shown the rays could kill the Ebola virus. In tests at Roper St. Francis, Deal would check a room for infectious germs, find them, run the machine, then return to find the room clean.
But the missing piece, as he put it, was demonstrating just how much difference the machine made. That’s what Duke did.
The robot looks like a cross between a “Star Wars” droid and a fluorescent light. It can only be used on equipment and facilities because the ray it emits is strong enough to destroy human DNA. It also talks. It tells people to leave the room when it’s ready to work. It shuts itself down automatically if a door is opened. It also shuts itself down when the decontamination is complete and notifies the operator.
It’s now used in more than 300 hospitals around the world, including Roper St. Francis and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston.
Deal and his co-inventors are now working on a device that kills bed bugs using ozone that degrades to become simple oxygen in the air. The three also have patented and are developing a device with technology similar to the True-D to sterilize endoscopes.
And on his own, Deal has patented and is developing a tattoo ink that can be removed with magnets — when he’s not writing the sequel to an unexpectedly successful novel centered in his hometown of Toccoa, Ga.
“It’s been known for a long time that UV light has the ability to destroy bacteria, just by turning on the light,” said Steven Shapiro, Roper St. Francis medical affairs vice president. “Jeff realized its use in the area of high-risk, highly infectious diseases. Think about a bed with rails, and how many nooks and crannies are there. That’s a lot of places for bacteria to ‘hang out’ that are difficult to clean.”