The new approach has so far only been tested in the lab and on mice, but it could offer a potential solution to antibiotic resistance, which is now getting so bad that the United Nations recently declared it a “fundamental threat” to global health.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria already kill around 700,000 people each year, but a recent study suggests that number could rise to around 10 million by 2050.
In addition to common hospital superbug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), scientists are now also concerned that gonorrhoea is about to become resistant to all remaining drugs.
But Shu Lam, a 25-year-old PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has developed a star-shaped polymer that can kill six different superbug strains without antibiotics, simply by ripping apart their cell walls.
Before we get too carried away, it’s still very early days. So far, Lam has only tested her star-shaped polymers on six strains of drug-resistant bacteria in the lab, and on one superbug in live mice.
But in all experiments, they’ve been able to kill their targeted bacteria – and generation after generation don’t seem to develop resistance to the polymers.
The polymers … work by directly attacking, penetrating, and then destabilising the cell membrane of bacteria.
Unlike antibiotics, which ‘poison’ bacteria, and can also affect healthy cells in the area, the [polymers] that Lam has designed are so large that they don’t seem to affect healthy cells at all.