Seven years ago, before the coronavirus outbreak spread globally, alumna Phyllis Kuhn saw a need for a product that could keep her healthy while traveling. Kuhn estimates that she caught a cold nearly half of the time she traveled by plane, leaving her sick for two to three weeks at a time. As a University of Massachusetts Amherst Microbiology MS and PhD holder with decades of experience in medical research, she knew that there had to be a solution.
Therefore, she began her mission to develop a facemask more effective than the standard ones on the market. To do this, she harnessed the potent sanitation and anti-inflammatory capabilities of an element that was a long-time interest of hers: copper. Two years later, she made what is today known as the Well Mask. Subsequently, she developed the Copper Mesh Insert (CMI) for use beneath a regular mask, converting it into a cidal—killing and inactivating—mask for extra protection.
Copper first piqued Kuhn’s interest early in her career while working as the head of the Hamot Medical Center microbiology department in Erie, Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Findings from a student’s research project revealed that brass doorknobs produced scarce growth, whereas stainless steel produced a large number of different types of microbes. Upon further investigation, Kuhn found that copper, the killing component of brass, could disinfect itself from microbes within a few minutes. Kuhn thought that copper was the ideal material for a protective mask due to its cidal properties. Copper kills bacteria and inactivates viruses, rendering them harmless. Kuhn explains, “Literature supports that copper inactivates coronavirus and almost all other respiratory viruses on contact.” Currently, no clinical trials are available on the Well Mask or the CMI and the coronavirus.
Kuhn went through several iterations of the mask before landing on a design that was both practical and comfortable for the wearer. Today’s Well Mask is made of 99.95% pure copper mesh. The mesh has a 30% open weave to make it easy to breathe through. Unlike the single-use paper facemasks that many people wear during flu season or while traveling, the Well Mask is reusable. The mask has a two-year shelf life but its cidal activity never wears out. An in-house test found that the mask’s cidal activity killed 90% of microbes within five minutes of contact.
Kuhn is no stranger to product development. After completing her PhD at UMass, she began her career as a clinical microbiologist at Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pennsylvania where she worked for eighteen years. She later developed the Hamot Research Center and spent fourteen years assisting hospital personnel with publication and grants. In her retirement from the medical center, Kuhn founded the Lake Erie Research Institute and helped researchers with medical research and product development.
A product like the Well Mask could prove critical during this coronavirus outbreak. Despite quarantines and social distancing, there is still widespread concern over potentially contracting the virus while shopping for groceries, prescriptions, and other essential provisions. These worries are compounded by sanitation and protective gear shortages in hospitals nationwide.
Wearing a copper mask could help prevent spread of the virus when people are out in public. Since Well Masks and CMIs have a two-year shelf life, mass production of the masks and CMIs could help cut down on gear shortages, too. Many paper masks on the market are single use because they cannot be sanitized, unlike Kuhn’s masks, which are easy to clean. Well Masks and CMIs can be disinfected immediately when cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. Healthcare professionals can autoclave the masks and mask inserts without harming the copper, ear loops, moleskin or the moleskin adhesive.
Kuhn adds that the mask’s copper mesh allows for “a miniscule amount of copper to be deposited in the nasopharyngeal (np) area, potentially killing viruses and stimulating an anti-inflammatory response without the use of drugs.” Tests with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) have confirmed copper’s effect when deposited in the np area. Since viruses can enter the body through the nostrils, this feature is particularly important. Well Masks are also water-resistant to protect the wearer from germs spread through sneezes.
In 2017, Kuhn founded Kuhn Copper Solutions to support development of the Well Masks. To date, the mask has design and provisional patents and has pending utility patents. At this time, the United States Food and Drug Administration has not cleared the Well Masks or CMIs for public use. A few months ago, Kuhn partnered with the Tampa-based facility Quest Inc., a sheltered workshop that provides employment for people with developmental disabilities. Kuhn continues to see increased interest in Well Masks, both nationally and internationally. Currently, she is in communication with several larger manufacturers that have expressed interest. She is also considering working with more sheltered workshops to ramp up production. Either way, Kuhn looks forward to producing Well Masks and CMIs on a larger scale to make them more accessible to consumers and healthcare professionals alike.