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Silver bandages?

Naomi Aoki (The Boston Globe)/EXETER, N.H. -- It all seems so low-tech now -- the idea of using a Band-Aid just to cover up a boo-boo and keep the dirt out. Almost crude really in light of all the advances in adhesive bandage fashion, comfort, and infection protection.

And if you'd thought you'd seen it all in the battle against life's minor cuts, scrapes, and burns, well think again. A silver-coated adhesive bandage with the power to kill more than 150 kinds of bacteria and fungus is on the way.

The bandage, approved last month by the US Food and Drug Administration for over-the-counter sales, is armed with nanocrystals of pure silver -- the same technology used in hospitals to treat severe burns and chronic wounds.

Developed by a small company here called Westaim Biomedical Inc., the silver-coated bandage could become one of the newest -- and arguably the most high-tech entry -- in the growing number of specialty adhesive bandages now crowding store shelves.

As major market players such as Johnson & Johnson, 3M, and Curad compete to grow their businesses in a mature market, the companies have radically overhauled the once boring but functional image of the plain brown adhesive bandage.

Bandages, now a $500 million market, come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, from clear ones aimed at adults to tattoo versions for children. They're enhanced with everything from infection-fighting ointments to high-tech moisture sealing systems that boost nature's own healing power.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson announced plans to roll out even more Band-Aid lines, including one that relieves pain and itching, another that stops bleeding using technology hospital surgeons do, and a third that is designed to stick securely yet gently to the skin.

And as bandages go cutting-edge, consumers seem willing to pay premium prices. Tattoo versions sell for about four times the regular Band-Aid. At 49 cents a strip, the Advanced Healing Band-Aid introduced last year claims to speed recovery by sealing in the body's natural healing fluids and costs nearly 10 times the plain, old Band-Aid. The price tag for the silver-coated bandages has yet to be determined.

Sales of adhesive bandages grew 9 percent in 1998, triple the growth rate of other first-aid supplies, according to Drug Store News. And although growth has slowed in subsequent years -- 4.4 percent in 1999 and 3.5 percent in 2000 -- the rate is still impressive for an industry as old as adhesive bandages, said Rob Eder, director of front-store categories for Drug Store News.

"It's one of the most mature segments of the market, and its got the biggest base so it is harder to grow the business," Eder said. "New products are the lifeblood of any business. So I'd expect to see some new entries, and I wouldn't be surprised if they create another bump in business."

All the infection protection claims and hospital-based technologies making their debuts in the adhesive-bandage market gave executives at Westaim Biomedical the idea to adapt the company's silver technology for an over-the-counter product.

For centuries, silver has been known for its power to kill germs. Ancient Greeks and Romans used it to disinfect water and protect wounds. But getting active silver into a wound has been a longstanding problem, said Dr. Robert H. Demling, director of the burn-trauma center at Brigham & Women's Hospital.

Since the mid-1900s, doctors have treated life-threatening burns with silver dissolved in salt solutions or creams. But the salts and creams themselves harmed the skin cells, Demling said, slowing the body's natural healing process even as the silver helped fight infection. The solutions also had to be applied frequently, he said, causing tremendous discomfort to the patients.

Westaim Biomedical's technology, known as Acticoat and first approved in 1998 for the treatment of life-threatening burns, delivers pure silver to the wounds, Demling said. And though the company itself hesitates to make the claim (because the FDA has not approved statements about Acticoat's healing properties), Demling said, the silver-coated bandages also speed the healing process.

Acticoat bandages are coated with tiny crystals of silver, about the same size as the bacteria they are designed to kill, that are activated when the bandages are moistened and applied to the wound. The silver-coated bandages, depending on the particular Acticoat product, last from three days to a week.

When burn specialists saw how Acticoat worked to aid in the healing of severe burns, they began using the bandages to treat patients with limb-threatening wounds, such as venous leg ulcers, pressure ulcers, and diabetic foot ulcers, that hadn't healed for years, Demling said. Last year, the FDA approved Acticoat bandages for the treatment of chronic wounds.

Even with the growing number of over-the-counter adhesive bandages, Demling said, he believes a silver-coated one would offer consumers additional benefits, particularly the metal's ability to kill virtually every germ it touches. The ointments are designed only to kill certain bacteria, he said.

"Whether you're putting it on a burn, a diabetic ulcer, or a little kid's knee, we know that it works," Demling said. "I think an over-the-counter product is a good move. Many people get little cuts and end up in the emergency room with infections, especially kids who go out and play and get dirty."

Demling has consulted for Westaim Biomedical in the past but does not have any stake in the company or the product.

The silver-coated bandage would be as easy to use as a regular adhesive bandage; just stick it on and keep it on. It would be designed to last for 24 hours and deliver about 10 to 20 percent of the silver in the prescription products. And getting it wet won't be a problem, Gillis said, because moisture will activate the silver crystals.

In spite of the recent FDA approval, however, the company estimates that it will be two years before the product reaches the market. As a company of only 60 people, it chose to marshal its resources behind its hospital products to treat burns and chronic wounds, said Westaim Biomedical's president Scott Gillis. Together, the market opportunities near $2 billion.

Marketing the consumer product, as opposed to the targeted sales of prescription products, would require a much larger sales force and advertising budget than Westaim could reasonably muster, Gillis said. So the company, a subsidiary of Canada's Westaim Corp., is looking for a partner with experience in the consumer health-care market to manufacture, distribute, and market the silver-coated adhesive bandages.

Eder of Drug Store News said a silver-coated product line could be the ticket to boosting a company's sales in adhesive bandages. But the fact that consumers know little about the benefits of silver could pose an obstacle to finding a marketing partner, he said.

"People already knew about antibiotics, but people don't necessarily understand silver," he said. "Unless someone wants to spend $20 million or $30 million on educating the consumer, it could be a difficult sell."

Westaim pursued the approval before seeking a partner because it wanted to answer some basic questions first. Could the company make a lower-dose version of Acticoat that would be effective yet appropriate for over-the-counter use? Could it win FDA approval? And could it mass-produce the bandages at a competitive price? Gillis now is confident that the answers to all of those questions is yes.

"We think this would be a great consumer product because of all its multiple benefits," Gillis said. "But as a small company, we can't do everything. We'd need a larger sales force, and lots of advertising money. So we decided to partner with someone to distribute this bandage."

Shares in the parent company, Westaim Corp., closed up 6 cents Friday to $5 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

(c) 2001 The Boston Globe

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