Silica nanoparticles with encapsulated DNA (SPED) to trace the spread of pathogens in healthcare

Antimicrob Resist Infect Control. 2022 Jan 10;11(1):4. doi: 10.1186/s13756-021-01041-3.


Background: To establish effective infection control protocols, understanding pathogen transmission pathways is essential. Non-infectious surrogate tracers may safely explore these pathways and challenge pre-existing assumptions. We used silica nanoparticles with encapsulated DNA (SPED) for the first time in a real-life hospital setting to investigate potential transmission routes of vancomycin-resistant enterococci in the context of a prolonged outbreak.

Methods: The two study experiments took place in the 900-bed University Hospital Zurich, Switzerland. A three-run 'Patient experiment' investigated pathogen transmission via toilet seats in a two-patient room with shared bathroom. First, various predetermined body and fomite sites in a two-bed patient room were probed at baseline. Then, after the first patient was contaminated with SPED at the subgluteal region, both patients sequentially performed a toilet routine. All sites were consequently swabbed again for SPED contamination. Eight hours later, further spread was tested at predefined sites in the patient room and throughout the ward. A two-run 'Mobile device experiment' explored the potential transmission by mobile phones and stethoscopes in a quasi-realistic setting. All SPED contamination statuses and levels were determined by real-time qPCR.

Results: Over all three runs, the 'Patient experiment' yielded SPED in 59 of 73 (80.8%) predefined body and environmental sites. Specifically, positivity rates were 100% on subgluteal skin, toilet seats, tap handles, and entertainment devices, the initially contaminated patients' hands; 83.3% on patient phones and bed controls; 80% on intravenous pumps; 75% on toilet flush plates and door handles, and 0% on the initially not contaminated patients' hands. SPED spread as far as doctor's keyboards (66.6%), staff mobile phones (33.3%) and nurses' keyboards (33.3%) after eight hours. The 'Mobile device experiment' resulted in 16 of 22 (72.7%) positive follow-up samples, and transmission to the second patient occurred in one of the two runs.

Conclusions: For the first time SPED were used to investigate potential transmission pathways in a real hospital setting. The results suggest that, in the absence of targeted cleaning, toilet seats and mobile devices may result in widespread transmission of pathogens departing from one contaminated patient skin region.

Keywords: Infection control; Infection prevention; Pathogen transmission; Silica nanoparticles; Surrogate markers.

MeSH terms

  • Cross Infection / transmission*
  • DNA
  • Equipment Contamination
  • Fomites
  • Gram-Positive Bacterial Infections / transmission*
  • Hospitals
  • Infection Control*
  • Nanoparticles / chemistry*
  • Patients' Rooms*
  • Silicon Dioxide / chemistry
  • Switzerland
  • Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci / physiology*


  • Silicon Dioxide
  • DNA