Viruses and bacteria evolve. As we develop drugs to fight infections, diseases adapt. Over time, drug treatments become ineffective. And when this drug-resistance happens faster than we can develop new drugs, it spells trouble.
Yet there’s optimistic news out of Australia. A 25 year-old scientist has discovered a tool to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria, and it is working well in lab tests. Her approach is aggressive and totally changes the way will fight infection.
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Shu Lam, a 25-year-old PhD student from the University of Melbourne, has developed a star-shaped polymercapable of killing superbugs without the use of antibiotics. The polymer rips apart the cell walls of bacteria, causing them to self-destruct.
So far, the polymers have been tested on six different superbug strains, and in live mice. And it is working.
“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.”
This is an epic development, and optimistic news for healthcare professionals. All told, antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill more than 700,000 people a year. Studies suggest that the number could reach more than 10 million by the middle of this century.
The research, which is being heralded as “a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine,” also shows that the bacteria aren’t developing resistance to the polymers the way they do to antibiotics.
And the new treatment has even been given a catchy name: SNAPPs, or structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers.
Destroying bacteria cells is easy enough. What makes this development unique is that the bacteria are being destroyed, while the healthy cells surrounding the bacteria are unaffected.
“With this polymerised peptide we are talking the difference in scale between a mouse and an elephant,” Lam’s supervisor, Greg Qiao, told Marcus Strom from the Sydney Morning Herald. “The large peptide molecules can’t enter the [healthy] cells.”
“For a time, I had to come in at 4am in the morning to look after my mice and my cells,” Lum told The Telegraph. “I wanted to be involved in some kind of research that would help solve problems … I really hope that the polymers we are trying to develop here could eventually be a solution.”
It is a dynamic beginning, for sure.