Robot aims to kill germs, reduce infections at hospitals

Xenex robot uses high-intensity ultraviolet light to blast hidden bacteria, spores, microorganisms

By Bill Spencer - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Just retired from teaching and with two beautiful girls to raise, Kimberly Kool, of Manvel, has everything to live for.

But eight years ago, just days after giving birth to her youngest daughter, Kool became gravely ill with what's called a hospital-acquired infection -- an infection you catch at the hospital.

Kool remembers the horrible ordeal her entire family lived through.

"She (the nurse) looked at my mom and said, 'Your daughter is really sick and we're not sure what's happening with this,'" Kool said.

Kool would spend six days in the intensive care unit at that hospital. She would also endure two blood transfusions and surgery to remove a fast-moving patch of infection on her stomach.

Kool is not alone. The Centers For Disease Control said hospital-acquired infections sicken 1.7 million Americans a year and they kill 99,000 hospital patients.

But now a space-age-looking robot is being put to work in 200 hospitals across the country. Its job is to blast hidden bacteria, spores and microorganisms with high-intensity ultraviolet light.

"It's a germ-zapping robot," Mark Stibich, epidemiologist and chief scientific officer for Xenex Disinfection Services, said about the cutting-edge machine. "It saturates the room with this high energy -- UV light -- that finds the bacteria and viruses, and it fuses their DNA and kills them."

The robot looks harmless enough, about 4 feet tall and dome topped -- sort of like R2-D2 from "Star Wars." It looks friendly, but make no mistake, this robot is a killer that uses a zenon gas light that is 25 times more intense than the sun.

According to one study conducted at three separate hospitals, the robot reduced one of the most deadly forms of infection, what's called C-diff infections, by 53 percent.

It reduced MRSA infections by 57 percent and it reduced overall HAIs, or hospital-acquired infections, by 20 percent.

Right now the Xenex robot is being used at two Houston hospitals -- the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in the Medical Center and the Michael Debakey VA Medical Center.

Xenex sells the robot for roughly $150,000, which is paid out over three years.

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