This 25-Year-Old May Have Solved The Superbug Crisis

What would happen if you got an infection and antibiotics couldn't clear it up? That's a growing possibility as more and more bacteria develop resistance to the drugs we use to kill them. According to a 2016 report from the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, 700,000 people worldwide die from antibiotic-resistant infections, a number that could rise to 10 million by 2050. That's why this is such big news: in 2016, a 25-year-old Ph.D. student developed what may be a solution to this crisis. Her method kills superbugs without using any antibiotics at all.

Polymer vs. Superbug: Fight!

Shu Lam is a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She and a team of researchers published a paper in Nature Microbiology detailing a groundbreaking development. It showed that a particular star-shaped protein structure the researchers call structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers (SNAPPs) successfully killed six strains of drug-resistant bacteria in the lab. (You're probably familiar with the word "polymer" as it refers to plastic, but a polymer can be made of anything — the word just refers to the way the molecules are structured).

But antibiotics they ain't. While antibiotics create a sort of toxic soup that won't let the bacteria survive (but can take out healthy cells in the process), the polymers work by attacking the infectious cells directly. They do this in a number of ways. "One method is by physically disrupting or breaking apart the cell wall of the bacteria," Lam explained to The Telegraph's Nicola Smith. "This creates a lot of stress on the bacteria and causes it to start killing itself."

And because the polymers are so large, they can't enter healthy cells.

The team even tested the polymers in mice to fight the dreaded Acinetobacter baumannii, a type of superbug bacteria. The bacteria was successfully wiped out, and importantly, it didn't develop any resistance to the polymer. Game. Set. Match. Maybe. We hope.

A Way's Off

Here's the part where we urge restraint: so far, these polymers have only been proven to kill six strains of bacteria in petri dishes and mice — they haven't been used in humans yet. Research is ongoing — Lam contributed to another study on bacteria-killing polymers published in January of 2017 — and things are hopeful, but clinical trials are still a long way off. Still, this is an approach no one has tried before, and that makes it extra intriguing for researchers looking for a way to solve the antibiotic resistance crisis.

Listen To The Podcast

To learn more about antibiotics research, scientific collaboration, and the economic factors driving today's decisions in the world of medicine, listen to our conversation with Dr. Brian T. Murphy on the Curiosity Podcast.

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Written by Ashley Hamer September 8, 2017

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