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Superbugs may meet their match in this bacteria-busting molecule

One of humanity’s most impending threats come from organisms too small to spot with the naked eye.

In the next few decades, antibiotic-resistant superbugs could become more deadly than cancer, playing a role in 10 million deaths each year. They already contribute to the death of some 700,000 people annually.

“Superbugs are those that become resistant to many of the commonly used antibiotics due to misuse and overuse over the years,” James Hedrick, the lead researcher of advanced organic materials at IBM Research, told Digital Trends. “As they become resistant they become harder and harder to treat. Why worry? There are very few last lines of defense available.”

After nearly losing his leg to a bacterial infection in 2016, Hedrick was inspired to find a solution to the global superbug problem. He and his team partnered with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore to create a synthetic molecule capable of killing five types of superbugs with limited side effects, according to a paper the team published last week in the journal Nature Communications. Their hope is that this molecule can be used to create antimicrobial drugs capable of treating antibiotic-resistant infections.

“Our macromolecular antimicrobials mimic, to some degree, our innate immune system.” Hedrick said, “That is, antimicrobial peptides. This is a synthetic version of these natural polymers that act against the ‘ESKAPE’ pathogens that are responsible for most hospital-acquired infections. Moreover, it works on multi-drug resistant pathogens. This paper is the first example of a synthetic polymer that has been used in vivo to eradicate several different types of infections. The polymer is uniquely designed such that it does its business and then rapidly degrades into non-toxic byproducts that are easily passed from the body. Finally, serial sublethal passages of the polymer with bacteria, designed to promote resistance, did not facilitate any resistance.”

In their paper, Hedrick and his colleagues demonstrated for the first time that a biodegradable synthetic molecule can have a broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity in mice with limited toxicity. The study also gives weight to the new “macromolecular therapeutics” research field, which may be our best bet to quell the emergence of superbugs.

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