Asia Might Have Cracked The Superbug Problem

Special Report ANTIBIOTICS/ REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Antibiotic-resistant superbugs may have met their match, thanks to new research published in Nature Microbiology earlier this week.

Shu Lam, 24, a Malaysian-Chinese Ph.D student at the University of Melbourne, developed a star-shaped polymer that can tear through the walls of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and eradicate them, reports The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). Lam’s star-shaped polymerized peptide may be the solution to the superbug problem. “It kills bacteria in multiple ways. We designed it to break the cell wall apart but we also found it can trigger the cell to kill itself,” Lam explained to the SMH. Lam’s superbug-killing polymer is called SNAPPS, an acronym which stands for structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers.

By 2050, superbugs could kill 10 million people a year and cost the global economy $100 trillion, revealed a Review on Antimicrobial Resistance report released in May. The report indicated that superbugs could kill one person every three seconds.

“Even today, 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year. Antibiotics are a special category of antimicrobial drugs that underpin modern medicine as we know it,” Jim O’ Neill, who chaired the review, told South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it is pulling antibacterial soaps off the market because they are concerned they contribute to the resistant superbug problem.

Scientists have experimented with peptides — short amino acid chains — before. Previous designs were able to eliminate bacteria, but they were also extremely toxic to the host. Lam’s design is unique because it is larger, and the large size seems to prevent it from harming healthy cells, Lam’s supervisor, Greg Qiao, told the SMH.

Lam’s research has a lot of potential, but it is still in the early stages of development. “Even with all the money in the world, it would take at least five years to go to the first human test,” Qiao explained to SCMP reporters.

The polymer research being carried out by Lam and her team in Australia could potentially also be applied to cancer, Qiao mentioned.

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