Science 3 min read

Can we Really Kill Superbugs Without Antibiotics?

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Because “superbugs” like MRSA no longer respond to traditional antibiotic treatments, researchers are locked in a constant microscopic arms race to develop new antibiotics that effectively counter increasingly resistant opportunistic bacterial strains.

Recently, a  25-year-old doctoral student developed an entirely new technique for combating superbugs- and without using antibiotics.

Antibiotics are perhaps one of the crucial 20th Century discoveries that dramatically improved human life-expectancy.

Now, in the 21st century, antibiotics are at the root of a major global health concern over antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kill an estimated 700,000 people a year– a figure projected to increase over the next few years.

Why Antibiotics are Part of the Problem

Traditional antibiotics essentially poison harmful bacteria cells from the outside in.  This property can cause collateral damage in two ways.

First, in addition to damaging harmful pathogenic bacteria, antibiotics can also damage healthy cells that surround the infection. Additionally, antibiotics can also destroy the “good” bacteria located in our gut that produce beneficial substances that aid in digestion and boost our immune system.

“There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Secondly, antibiotics inherently encourage resistance. Because bacteria reproduce so quickly, they can quickly become resistant to antibiotics that essentially eliminate the weaker bacteria but leave the more aggressive strains to reproduce.

Alexander Fleming, credited with inventing penicillin, shared the Nobel Prize for his discovery, and in his acceptance speech cautioned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Can we Really Kill Superbugs Without Antibiotics?

Instead of continuing to research ways to poison the bacteria, Shu Lam, a 25-year-old Malaysian doctoral student at the University of Melbourne, has created an entirely new, non-drug technique to kill superbugs without antibiotics.

Lam, supervised by Professor Greg Qiao, created star-shaped polymers that target, penetrate and destroy the cell membranes of the bacteria. Lam’s SNAPP, or Structurally Nano-engineered Antimicrobial Peptide Polymers, cause the bacteria to undergo a biophysical stress and commit suicide, but without harming healthy cells.

“Lam is thinking outside of the box, and is using a targeted approach to more effectively solve the issue at hand rather than a blanket approach that stands to make the problem worse.”

Lam’s star-shaped polymers are distinctive nanoparticles produced by binding pure polymers consisting of only two amino acids (peptides) to form a large molecule. These combinations of different polypeptides provide new properties to the molecule as compared to isolated polypeptides.

Although her technique has only been tested on six antibiotic-resistant strains in mice, generation after generation of the superbugs do not seem to develop a resistance to the SNAPP.

Lam’s technique shows enormous promise, but more testing is required before Lam’s SNAPP goes to human trials or widespread medical application.

Thinking Outside the Pillbox

Shu’s approach is not only significant because it offers a viable and effective way to combat bacterial infection specifically and antibiotic-resistance generally; her work is also significant because it demonstrates an innovative approach to solving a problem.

Instead of continuing a line of research into developing new antibiotics that may help in the short term but ultimately exacerbate the issue overall, Lam’s work presents an entirely new solution to address the root cause of the problem. Lam is thinking outside of the box in order to kill superbugs without antibiotics. This targeted approach more effectively solves the issue at hand rather than a blanket approach that stands to make the problem worse.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

Comments (3)
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  1. 4thaugust1932 October 18 at 6:16 am GMT

    Interesting? Can it be used to kill cancer cells?

    • Alexander De Ridder October 18 at 6:26 am GMT

      This technique is specifically for treating drug-resistant bacteria. Cancer cells do not fit that description, but new techniques like the one described here could have a promise. The question would be how you can selectively target cancer cells to induce biophysical stress and commit suicide.

    • Vojta Proutek October 18 at 11:42 am GMT

      Cancer is not a disease caused by bacteria its a malfunction of your own cells cased by certain environmental aspects like radiation or smoking tobacco or just by getting old.

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