PhD student discovers a way to fight drug-resistant superbugs without antibiotics

The possibility of a superbug spelling mankind’s doom, once the realm of gory science fiction, is fast becoming a horrifying reality with the rise of mankind’s worst nightmare: antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Superbugs are bacteria or fungi that are resistant to two or more types of antibiotics, and consequently tougher to get rid off. Scientists warn that the day is not far off that one or more strains of superbugs might acquire immunity against even the most powerful of antibiotics in mankind’s arsenal. The threat is so dire that recently the United Nations declared superbugs a “fundamental threat” to global health.

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          The lethal Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (Photo: Getty)

The misuse of antibiotics (such as taking them when you don’t need them or not completing a full prescribed course of antibiotic medicine) is the single leading factor contributing to this problem. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released  released a list of drug-resistant bacterial and fungal infections, labeling each as “urgent,” “serious” or “concerning,” on the basis of how dangerous they are, their prevalence, and difficulty of treatment.

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                                                                               Superbugs explained

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria already kill around 700,000 people each year, but a recent study suggests that number could rise to around 10 million by 2050.

Until now, the tried and tested method to combat superbugs was to develop even more powerful antibiotics, research into which has considerably slowed down since the 1980s.

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Stagnation in antibiotic research. Image credit: Reactgroup.org

However, while scientific research continued to explore how humans could stay ahead of bacteria, interest from drug companies dwindled because antibiotics, like all other drugs, are expensive to develop.

On average, pharmaceutical companies spend $5 billion in research and testing for each new drug they bring to the market. Because about 80 percent of the drugs emerging from labs fail in safety or efficacy testing, pharmaceutical companies need to recoup billions from each new drug that makes it to the market.

Unlike antibiotic drugs, which are increasingly losing their effectiveness in the long run with the rise of superbugs, pharmaceutical companies can make greater profits on drugs that can be used regularly without losing effectiveness- such as antidepressants, statins, and anti-inflammatory medications.

It is in light of this bleak scenario that the science world was caught unawares when a 25 year old PhD student just came up with a way to fight drug-resistant superbugs- without antibiotics.

Shu Lam, a Malaysian Chinese PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has developed a star-shaped polymer that can kill six different superbug strains without antibiotics, simply by ripping apart their cell walls.

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Melbourne University PhD student Shu Lam. (Photo: Telegraph.co.uk)

“We’ve discovered that the polymers actually target the bacteria and kill it in multiple ways,” Lam told Nicola Smith from The Telegraph. “One method is by physically disrupting or breaking apart the cell wall of the bacteria. This creates a lot of stress on the bacteria and causes it to start killing itself.”

The research has been published in Nature Microbiology, and according to Smith, it’s already being hailed by scientists in the field as “a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine”.

“Nowadays we already see a lot of people admitted to hospital or dying from bacterial infections that used to be quite easy to treat but aren’t anymore. What I’ve discovered is a class of new antimicrobial agents. We hope that these will be replacements for antibiotics,” says Shu Lam.

She believes her method of killing bacteria using tiny star-shaped molecules, built with short chains of protein units called peptide polymers, is a ground-breaking alternative to failing antibiotics.

Lam builds the star-shaped molecules at Melbourne’s prestigious school of engineering. Each star has 16 or 32 “arms” made from peptide polymers, a process she likens to putting together small blocks of Lego.

When unleashed, the polymers attack the superbugs directly, unlike antibiotics, which create a toxic swamp that also destroys nearby healthy cells.

Not only are they really good at killing superbugs, so far they’ve been relatively non-toxic to the body.

“Well, obviously we need to do more research to assess if these molecules have any other side-effects on the body, but currently, the preliminary results are showing that they kill the bacteria but not the healthy cells of the body,” Shu says.

Is this a game-changer?

Shu’s discovery is significant because it’s an alternative to antibiotics, not a new version of the same treatment.

So far, Lam has tested her star-shaped polymers on six strains of drug-resistant bacteria in the lab, and on one superbug in live mice.

In all experiments, they’ve been able to kill their targeted bacteria – and more significantly, unlike with conventional antibiotics, generation after generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria don’t seem to develop resistance to the polymers.

The polymers – which they call SNAPPs, or structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers – work by directly attacking, penetrating, and then destabilizing the cell membrane of bacteria.

Unlike antibiotics, which ‘poison’ bacteria, and can also affect healthy cells in the area, the SNAPPs that Lam has designed are so large that they can’t enter or affect healthy cells at all.

Lam hopes her “innovative” research will encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest. “I hope it will attract some interest, because what we have discovered is quite different from antibiotics,” she says.

“Some people have been telling me ‘Please work harder, so that we can have a solution and put it out on the market.’ But with research, you need to have a lot of patience because we still have quite a long way to go.”

Professor Greg Qiao, her PhD supervisor, says that Lam’s project is one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs he had seen in his 20 years at Melbourne university. But he cautions that it is still in its early stages, and will need at least another five years to develop, unless millions of pounds of investment can be found to speed the process. Cross-discipline work is still required to further reduce toxicity and work out the best way to administer the treatment, whether by tablet or injection.

Prof Qiao says: “The really good news about this is that, at the moment, if you have a superbug and you run out of antibiotics, there’s not much you can do. At least now, you can do something.”

 

 

 

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