Using stars to overpower superbugs

A star-shaped polymer is being harnessed by a University of Melbourne team to kill superbugs.

Professor Greg Qiao and his colleagues from the Melbourne School of Engineering have created an amino acid polymer that kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria by ripping apart their cell walls.

The rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is one of the world’s greatest health threats, according to the World Health Organisation, which predicts 10 million deaths due to superbugs by 2050.

“The world urgently needs to find a replacement that bacteria won’t become resistant to,” Greg says.

Greg and his team discovered their polymer was successful at killing the top six most significant superbugs. It was also successful at killing bacteria in infected mice.

Melbourne University Professor Greg Qiao and PHD student Shu Lam in the Laboratory at Melbourne University, Melbourne Australia
Significantly, the bacteria showed no sign of developing resistance to the polymer. A strength of the polymer is it targets bacteria via several pathways, which includes ripping apart cells walls, unlike conventional antibiotics which only use one pathway.

The polymer is also non-toxic, requiring 100 times the dose that kills bacteria before it starts to show toxicity against a red blood cell.

The discovery is the culmination of several years’ work involving a cross-disciplinary team of both engineers and medical researchers, Greg says.

The team plans to develop the formula and prepare for phase one human trials in the next five years.

Banner image: Prof Greg Qiao, Associate Professor Neil O’Brian-Simpson, Dr Steven Shirbin, Dr Ignacio Insua, Alicia Rasines Mazo.
Credit: Cesar Nicolas

Published in Stories of Australian Science 2017.

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