Su­per­bugs be­ware: There’s a new weapon in town to fight bac­te­ria

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Chris Davis Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa. com.

It’s been four years since the di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, Mar­garet Chan, warned about the loom­ing “post an­tibi­otic era”, call­ing it, in ef­fect, “an end to modern medicine”.

“Things as com­mon as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill,” she said. “Doc­tors fac­ing pa­tients will have to say: ‘I’m sorry, there’s noth­ing I can do for you.’”

The rea­son is su­per­bugs — dis­ease-caus­ing bac­te­ria that used to suc­cumb to an­tibi­otics but have been mu­tat­ing and evolv­ing their own re­sis­tance to all 150-plus drugs, and they’re do­ing it faster than new drugs can be dis­cov­ered.

Forms of ty­phoid in Africa and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in more than 100 coun­tries are un­af­fected by any known medicines. Bac­te­ria that cause wound in­fec­tions, menin­gi­tis and pneu­mo­nia are also start­ing to show in­dif­fer­ence to an­tibi­otics.

Su­per­bugs al­ready kill 700,000 peo­ple a year, and stud­ies sug­gest the num­ber could rise to 10 mil­lion over the next 30 years.

That’s why a pa­per just pub­lished in Na­ture Mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy from a re­search team at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne (Aus­tralia) is caus­ing such a stir in the med­i­cal world. They may have found a new way to de­stroy drug-re­sis­tant su­per­bugs with­out an­tibi­otics.

The team is led by 25-yearold PhD can­di­date Shu Lam, and the an­timi­cro­bial agents they’ve dis­cov­ered — well, built, ac­tu­ally — are called “Struc­turally Nano-en­gi­neered An­timi­cro­bial Pep­tide Poly­mers”, or SNAPPs.

Lam has been as­sem­bling the SNAPP mol­e­cules at Mel­bourne’s school of engi­neer­ing. Each one of the star­shaped mol­e­cules has 16 or 32 poly­mer “arms” with each arm con­nected at the mol­e­cule’s core.

“It’s ba­si­cally like play­ing with Lego,” she told, “you have small build­ing blocks which you as­sem­ble to­gether, you link all of the pro­tein units to­gether to make a long chain.

“It kills bac­te­ria in mul­ti­ple ways,” she added. “We de­signed it to break the cell wall apart but we also found it can trig­ger the cell to kill it­self.”

An­tibi­otics work by ba­si­cally poi­son­ing bac­te­ria and can wreak havoc on sur­round­ing healthy cells, but the SNAPP ap­proach di­rectly attacks and rips apart the bac­te­ria’s cell wall.

And be­cause of its size — about 10 nanome­ters in di­am­e­ter — it’s too large to en­ter or do any dam­age to healthy cells.

In the lab, Lam and her team suc­cess­fully knocked out six dif­fer­ent su­per­bugs and one in­fec­tion in mice.

The other promis­ing as­pect of SNAPP is that bac­te­ria do not seem to be in­ter­ested in mu­tat­ing and evolv­ing to over­come the as­sault.

“[SNAPPs] ac­tu­ally still kill them af­ter the 600th gen­er­a­tion of mu­ta­tion,” Lam’s su­per­vi­sor Pro­fes­sor Greg Qiao said.

Lam, who is the daugh­ter of a doc­tor, said her team’s ex­per­tise was in chem­istry, and “we know chem­istry can make cool and use­ful ma­te­ri­als”.

“Cur­rently we are look­ing at bac­te­rial in­fec­tions,” she said. “Our re­sults have shown that we can kill one group of bac­te­ria, but there are many dif­fer­ent types of bac­te­ria, so we are look­ing at whether we can ex­pand our sys­tem.”

Qiao said Lam’s project is one of the big­gest sci­en­tific break­throughs he has seen in his 20 years at the univer­sity, the Tele­graph re­ports, adding that sci­en­tists are say­ing it “could change the face of modern medicine”.

And like Lam he cau­tions that it is all still in the very early stages and it will be five years be­fore any­thing to test on hu­mans could be ready, un­less, mil­lions of dol­lars of in­vest­ment come pour­ing in to hurry the process along.

“What we have dis­cov­ered is quite dif­fer­ent from an­tibi­otics,” Lam said, adding that she hoped phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies take note. “We still have a long way to go.”

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