Superbugs Are Coming -- but This 20-Something May Save Us All


Did you hear the one about the 25-year-old woman who might have found a way to save us all from superbugs?


It's a good one.

Especially because antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill about 70,000 people each year. And that number is expected to skyrocket to around 10 million by 2050.

Well, Shu Lam, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne's School of Engineering, is on it. And may have come up with a way to eradicate these killer bugs -- or, well, at least six different strains of 'em so far -- without using antibiotics.

Antibiotics kill bacteria by targeting certain proteins they contain. Which is great except that over time, the bacteria can build up a resistance. And then you're sh*t up the creek.

Lam's genius invention is called SNAPPs -- structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers. Don't worry, we won't ask you to say that five times fast. Basically, SNAPPs attack the cell walls of the bacteria, causing it so much stress that it eventually gives up and kills itself.

It's fascinating stuff. CafeMom asked James T. Gordy, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology and the Dr. Richard Markham Lab, to break down what, exactly, this news means.

Can you explain this research in layperson's terms?
[Lam's] lab has been studying different antimicrobial compounds that work by punching holes in the outer protective layer of bacteria. Simply put, if the membrane and walls have enough holes punched in them, the bacteria will die. 

Up until this point, they haven't worked very well. Either they weren't punching holes in enough bacteria and wouldn't be able to clear an infection, or they were also punching holes in mammalian cells, which would hurt the person taking the drug.

This study headed up by Ms. Lam found a new way of making these "hole-punchers" by joining a bunch together in the rough shape of a star. They showed some exciting results where this star polymer was able to kill bacteria really well, even bacteria that are resistant to last-chance antibiotics.

Importantly, they showed that this star polymer didn't hurt mammalian cells and that it was able to clear an infection in a mouse. This is the first time one of these compounds has been able to do all three of those things: kill resistant bacteria in a dish, kill resistant bacteria in a mammal, and not hurt the cells of the mammal. Finally, the bacteria did not become resistant to the treatment!

More from CafeMom: What Every Parent Should Know Before Giving Antibiotics To Their Child

Why is it getting easier for bacteria to resist traditional antibiotics?
Imagine the bacteria is a car. Antibiotics are precise and can remove the brakes or unscrew the oil plug or unplug the battery or any number of highly specific things that can break a car. It's pretty easy to change the bolts or lock the hood and block the interaction from happening. 

This star polymer is like artillery that will blow holes in the car. Enough of them, and the car will be dead. It's not easy to become resistant to physical damage.

So how promising IS Lam's research?
This research is really promising! I will say first that although this is a great start, there is never a guarantee that this technology will work in people. We hope so, but we are a ways away from being sure about that. 

If it does continue to work, it could create a new class of drugs that would be able to kill bacteria without worry of resistance. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest medical issues of our time. Some bacterial infections like staphylococcus (MRSA), tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and others are getting more and more difficult to treat.

In modern medicine, it is still hard to believe that we can get infected by a bacteria and not be able to be cured. Even worse, surgeries of all types would become much more risky in what is termed a "post-antibiotic world," where the majority of bacterial infections are no longer treatable.

Research like this is essential to avoid the dire consequences of a truly post-antibiotic world. 

Still, this research is in its infancy. While promising, it is important to understand that this is not a solution to the resistance problem. Not yet. However, we're cautiously optimistic that work like this will lead us there in the near future.


Image via Photology1971/Shutterstock

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