Tom Martin talks with Sam Perkins, co-founder and CEO of Purgenix, about the work it is doing with ultraviolet light to deactivate or kill airborne bacteria.
Each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. At least twenty-three thousand people die annually from these infections. One way these pathogens are spread is through a hospital’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system. Filtration alone does not capture all of them. That deficiency has given rise to a new technology that uses ultraviolet light. One company that produces the technology is Purgenix with offices in Atlanta and Lexington.
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Q: Will you give us a brief sketch of your background and how you became interested in cleaning up the air in health care facilities?
A: My training is as a lawyer, and I used to handle a lot of technical cases. I love getting involved with early-stage companies and identifying opportunities to help people. I was asked to review this company, and I realized that this was not about making air-handling systems operate better or more energy efficient. It really was about people, health and ultimately saving lives.
Q: You bring legal expertise to the Purgenix equation. Who is behind the science?
A: The original developers of the platform and named in the patent were a filter salesman and an older gentleman with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Currently, our acting chief science officer is Steve Kaiser. Steve holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan and a post-doctoral appointment to MIT. His last position with Union Carbide was as global director for intellectual property.
Q: How effective are conventional air-handling systems in addressing the problem of airborne pathogens?
A: It’s an unseen enemy. Hospitals are dealing with these reservoirs of these pathogens and diseases that are actually collecting in their air-handling units. The duct systems in hospitals are like a major highway, a delivery mechanism. They’re still using technology that you would have recognized 100 years ago, and that’s filtration.
Q: And how long has this technology been around?
A: The utilization of ultraviolet as a germicidal solution dates back to 1903. Actually, the Nobel Prize in science went to a scientist who applied it to tuberculosis inside of rooms.
Q: How does it work?
A: Well, basically when you think of ultraviolet C-band energy, a very high-frequency energy — in fact, so high that if we didn’t have the ozone layer it would come through from our neighbor the sun — but the ozone protects us from it. This energy alters and breaks the DNA or RNA inside a living organism so that it either kills it or makes it so it cannot replicate.
Q: How does your company’s system differ from conventional hospital air filtration?
A: We have a patented platform of angling these lamps, creating a very smooth energy field, and that’s the patent that we hold. We’re able to then design energy fields in intensities that we can place inside of the air-handling unit where it’s the pivot point of all air into the building. We build that energy field to complement the function of the filters.
Q: Is your system one-size-fits-all, or do you have to customize it according to the design of each facility?
A: It must be customized in the form of an actual design. There are many technical aspects of making sure that you can deliver the right quantity of energy to the pathogens that come through. Think of it as when you go out to sunbathe. You do that in the summertime for a reason, and that’s because there’s more sunlight. You get a better tan. We have to design the system so it’s always summertime.
Q: MRSA and Clostridium difficile are very serious infections. Does your technology address these pathogens?
A: There are many, many more that need to be dealt with. And, yes, we address each and every one of those.
Q: Are there many of these systems on the market? Is this a competitive field?
A: Curiously, the biggest competition is doing nothing and using the old technology, filtration. That’s like asking if a house painter competes with van Gogh, if I can use that analogy. There are a lot of people that will sell you lamps that emit ultraviolet. The difference is in the application.
Q: A study in 2010 for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology concluded that “more targeted studies are needed to evaluate the efficacy, safety and incremental benefit of UVGI.” That was six years ago. Do you know of any subsequent studies that might refute that?
A: We would welcome many more studies. It’s very difficult, though, to study this in the environment because, can you put a radio isotope on the pathogen that is in the air-handling unit and track it all the way through and demonstrate it’s the one that made into the patient? That’s a challenge.
Q: We have talked mostly in terms of protecting patients, but in a hospital, there are many people who are not necessarily patients — staff and visitors, for example.
A: Absolutely. If there’s one thing every person shares in the hospital, it’s the air. So, for example, we have a disease in Room 123 that is going back through the air returns up to the air system and is being shared with Room 124 and every other room in that hospital. It can’t be isolated.
Q: Where in Kentucky has Purgenix technology been in use, and what kinds of results are you seeing?
A: I’m very proud to say we’re in the University of Kentucky’s Medical Center, in the surgical suite. But, I think one of the greatest accomplishments given the challenge is rural healthcare. The recently retired CEO of Pineville Community Hospital, Milton Brooks, saw this as a major need for his community and asked us to design a system for all of his air-handling units. We applied it there and with some very interesting results from people who occupied that hospital.
Q: Such as?
A: One of my favorite stories: As I was returning about a year later to visit with Milton and to find out how the system was working I went up to the receptionist and she said, “Gee, I’m wearing mascara today.” And I said, “Yes, you are and it looks very nice.” And she said, “No, I’m wearing mascara today. I’ve worked here for five years and until you put your system in, my eyes watered. And now, they don’t. I am absolutely sold on what’s happening here.”
Q: What do you think was going on in that case?
A: Well, what is not seen are the concentrations of mold bacteria that are being circulated and certain people have different levels of sensitivity. I think she had a higher concentration of that because of where she sat. And, I think that she just had a different kind of sensitivity to that.
Q: You are now in early-stage growth. What is the outlook for continued growth?
A: Very good. I’m going to celebrate with you a particularly important moment that we have in a rural hospital that’s at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Cynthiana. They are going to be the first branded “PurHospital” for the purpose of being able to come in and change and alter that environment inside the hospital so you can come in and understand that you’re in a completely different environment than the hospital that does not have Purgenix in their air-handling system.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.