In today's fast-moving technological world, some words can quickly lose their meaning.

Take the word "nanotechnology," for example.

We see and hear it all the time. But, other than a vague sense that some pretty amazing things are being done with very small things, most of us don't really have a handle on the promise of this science.

So, how's this for promise? Using the tools and materials of nanotechnology, scientists have come up with vanishingly thin films coated with silver, a very effective antibacterial agent. These "nanofilms" can be stamped onto the back of artificial skin, giving doctors a new, powerful weapon in the fight against infection for burn patients and others with chronic wounds.

The research that led to this breakthrough is a great example of a renewed focus at UW-Madison on moving technologies from the realm of thought and invention, into the lab, and then back out to the real world. Already, a Madison startup business called Imbed Biosciences is working to bring the advance to hospital emergency rooms, possibly within the next couple of years.

Working with colleagues at the University of Colorado-Denver and the University of California-Davis, researchers from UW-Madison's School of Chemical and Biological Engineering and School of Veterinary Medicine tested the new treatments on mice with impressive success.

Ankit Agarwal, a UW-Madison honorary research associate in chemical and biological engineering, said he and Kathleen Guthrie, with the School of Veterinary Medicine, tested the artificial skin in mice with deep skin wounds. They applied artificial skin with and without the silver nanofilms. After only three days, wounds treated with the silver-modified artificial skin contained significantly less bacteria.

The advance holds great promise for relieving the pain of the 7 million people who are treated each year in the U.S. for burns or chronic wounds. They now have to suffer through many daily dressing changes during which nurses clean their wounds and cover them with gauze soaked in antibacterial agents.

Still, infection is a constant threat; about 20 percent of such patients develop infections. A major problem is that the antimicrobial agents now used are toxic to the artificial skin.

Silver, however, is a reliable and efficient killer of bacteria, even those resistant to other drugs. Because applying the silver to delicate artificial skin has been impossible, Agarwal and Nicholas Abbott, a UW-Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering, came up with a way to impregnate nanofilms with precise amounts of silver that release over 10 days. Then, taking a cue from the electronics industry, they developed a method for stamping the silver-treated nanofilms onto the soft underside of commercially available artificial skin.

Agarwal said the company formed to market the dressings, Imbed Biosciences, is moving into new offices in University Research Park next week.

He said the hope is to move soon into clinical trials. Within a year, he said, the group could have approval from the U.S. Federal Drug Administration to get the treatment into hospitals for use.

"The whole goal of the project has been to transfer the technology as quickly as possible into clinics," said Agarwal.

It all lends a very human dimension to the promises of nanotechnology and insight into the evolution of an idea on its journey from the brain to a lab bench and into the hands of a doctor where it does something miraculous: salve pain and heal.