Scientists have invented a new way to destroy a bacterium which killed four babies in hospitals in Northern Ireland.

Three infants died from pseudomonas in January while another succumbed in December in Belfast and Londonderry.

Academics from Queen’s University Belfast believe they have made a significant breakthrough which could be in hospitals within a year. The technique uses gas to reach niche areas like taps which were blamed for the outbreak.

High levels of bacteria have also been uncovered at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Bill Graham, director of QUB’s Centre for Plasma Physics, said: “We think it could be quickly quite useful for these difficult environments, particularly within biofilms.

“The excitement for us was finding that it really could get in there and clear the bacteria.”

Pseudomonas is a relatively common hospital infection which does not usually cause illness in healthy people but can threaten the most vulnerable hospital patients, most commonly in intensive care, those with depleted immune systems such as cancer patients, people with severe burns and premature babies in neonatal units.

Thousands of cases are reported across the UK every year. It lives on the skin but can spread through medical equipment such as catheters and feeding tubes inserted into the body.

Sink taps were the source of an infection which killed three babies at a neo-natal unit at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s health minister Edwin Poots has confirmed.

Professor Graham said existing cleaning products work well for general areas but it is more difficult to cleanse uneven surfaces like instruments.

When bacteria congregate on surfaces they produce a glue which joins them together in complex communities, known as biofilms, the professor said. They form a resistant film and bind themselves together, often preventing antibiotics from penetrating and killing bacteria deep within this protective layer.

Bacteria growing like this, as is often seen with hospital superbugs, are often much more tolerant to antibiotics and disinfectants compared with free-floating bacteria.

The scientist said they had passed an electric current through the gas to make it more effective.

Professor Graham added: “The technique we’ve used, known as a cold plasma jet, creates a number of agents which rapidly kill bacteria, even within mature biofilms.

“Not only does it attack the bacteria but this synergistic approach attacks the biofilm structure killing the bacteria deep within.”