Health Sep. 26, 2016 03:21PM EST
After three years of research, a Ph.D. student at the
may have discovered a way to
kill superbugs without
the use of antibiotics. University of Melbourne
Shu Lam believes that she has found the key to averting a health crisis so severe that the United Nations recently declared it a "fundamental threat" to global health.
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs kill about 170,000 people a year and, according to a British study, are estimated to kill up to 10 million people a year by 2050 and cost the world economy $100 trillion.
"If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told The Guardian. "It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy."
The Superbug Doctors Have Been Dreading Is Now in the
In what is being hailed by scientists in the field as "a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine," Lam and her team developed a star-shaped peptide polymer that targets the resistant superbugs, rips apart their cell walls and kills them.
"These star polymers screw up the way bacteria survives," Lam told VICE. "Bacteria need to divide and grow but when our star is attached to the membrane it interferes with these processes. This puts a lot of stress on the bacteria and it initiates a process to kill itself from stress."
A bacterium cell before (left) and after being treated by the star-shaped polymers.University of
Lam told The Telegraph the polymers have been effective in treating mice infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and are relatively non-toxic to the healthy cells in the body. The reduction in toxicity is because of the larger size of the polymers which make them too big to enter healthy cells.
Lam's findings were recently published in the Nature Microbiology journal and while the results are promising in the lab and on mice, she said there is still a long way to go.
"We still need to do a lot of studies and a lot of tests—for example, to see whether these polymers have any side effects on our bodies," she explained to Vice. "We need a lot of detailed assessments like that, [but] they could hopefully be implemented in the near future."
Professor Greg Qiao, her Ph.D. supervisor, told The Telegraph they will need at least five more years to fully develop her project unless millions of dollars are invested into speeding up the process.
However, "The really good news about this is that, at the moment, if you have a superbug and you run out of antibiotics, there's not much you can do. At least you can do something now," he said.
So what would the star polymer treatment look like in the future? As Lam explained in an interview with VICE:
"The quickest way to make this available to the public is through topical application, simply because you go through less procedures as opposed to ingesting these molecules into the body. So when you have a wound or a bacterial infection on the wound then you [generally] apply some sort of antibacterial cream.
"The star polymers could potentially become one of the anti-bacterial ingredients in this cream. Ultimately, we hope that what we're discovering here could replace antibiotics. In other words, we also hope that we will be able to inject this into the body to treat serious infections, or even to disperse it in the form of a pill which patients can take, just like somebody would take an antibiotic."
Does this 25 year-old hold the key to winning the war against superbugs?
Not many 25-year-olds can claim to get up at 4am and work weekends to save the world from an impending Armageddon that could cost tens of millions of lives.
But for the past three years, Shu Lam, a Malaysian PhD student at the
has confined herself to a scientific laboratory to figure out how to kill
superbugs that can no longer be treated with antibiotics. University of Melbourne
She believes that she has found the key to averting a health crisis so severe that last week the United Nations convened its first ever general assembly meeting on drug-resistant bacteria.
The overuse and incorrect use of antibiotics has rendered some strains of bacteria untreatable, allowing so-called “superbugs” to mutate. Last Wednesday, the problem was described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a “fundamental threat” to global health and safety.
Superbugs kill an estimated 700,000 people a year, among them 230,000 newborns. But, according to a recent British study, this number will rise to a staggering 10 million a year by 2050 – as many as cancer – if no action is taken. It could cost the world economy $100 trillion.
Following a UK-led drive to raise awareness of the potential impact of antimicrobial resistance, UN members pledged to deliver an update on the superbug war by 2018, but in her small laboratory on the other side of the world, Lam is already several steps ahead.
She believes her method of killing bacteria using tiny star-shaped molecules, built with chains of protein units called peptide polymers, is a ground-breaking alternative to failing antibiotics.
On current trends, a common disease like gonorrhoea may become untreatable.
“We’ve discovered that [the polymers] actually target the bacteria and kill it in multiple ways,” says Lam, who leads a half-a-dozen-strong research team. “One method is by physically disrupting or breaking apart the cell wall of the bacteria. This creates a lot of stress on the bacteria and causes it to start killing itself.”
Her research, published this month in the prestigious journal, Nature Microbiology, has already been hailed by scientists as a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine.
Lam builds the star-shaped molecules at
prestigious school of engineering. Each star has 16 or 32 “arms” made from
peptide polymers, a process she likens to putting together small blocks of
When unleashed, the polymers attack the superbugs directly, unlike antibiotics, which create a toxic swamp that also destroys nearby healthy cells.
Lam successfully tested the polymer treatment on six different superbugs in the laboratory, and against one strain of bacteria in mice. Even after multiple generations of mutations, the superbugs have proven incapable of fighting back.
“We found the polymers to be really good at wiping out bacterial infections,” she says. “They are actually effective in treating mice infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. At the same time, they are quite non-toxic to the healthy cells in the body.”
The reduction in toxicity is because the larger size of the peptide polymers, about 10 nanometres in diameter, means they cannot enter healthy cells.
Her scientific breakthrough has left Lam little time for socialising. Due to the sensitivities of her biological experiments, even her weekends cannot be regarded as her own. “For a time, I had to come in at 4am in the morning to look after my mice and my cells,” she says.
But for the ambitious doctor’s daughter, the sacrifice has been worth it. “I wanted to be involved in some kind of research that would help solve problems,” she says.
“This research is significant because everyone is worried about superbugs. Suddenly, a lot of people have been telling me that either they themselves or their relatives have been infected, that they have been in intensive care because of a superbug, and that people they know have actually died,” added Lam.
“I really hope that the polymers we are trying to develop here could eventually be a solution.”
The growing superbug crisis has been described by scientists as a “slow-motion tsunami”.
The world is slowly waking up to the nightmare threat of a post-antibiotic era that could end modern medicine and create a situation where mundane problems such as a sore throat or a grazed knee could prove fatal.
But it was Alexander Fleming, the Scot who in 1928 discovered penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, who first sounded a warning about the consequences of its misuse. “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and, by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant,” he cautioned while accepting his Nobel Prize in 1945.
A mere 71 years after Fleming’s discovery revolutionised global healthcare, Margaret Chan, the director of the World Health Organisation, has warned that the gains antibiotics have brought to modern medicine may soon be reversed.
“On current trends, a common disease like gonorrhoea may become untreatable,” Chan said last week. “Doctors facing patients will have to say: ‘I’m sorry – there’s nothing I can do for you.’”
An outbreak of a tough strain of typhoid in
and a form of tuberculosis found in 105 countries have already proven
impervious to antibiotics. Gram-negative bacteria, which cause diseases like
pneumonia and meningitis, and wound- or surgical-site infections, is also
Meanwhile, only two new classes of antibiotics have entered the market in the last half-century.
For pharmaceutical companies, antibiotics have proven to be a poor investment, because development costs are high, the resulting drugs rid the patient of the target disease after a short period of time. By contrast, chronic illness such as high blood pressure require treatments to be taken daily for the rest of a patient’s life.
“Incentives must be found to recreate the prolific era of antibiotic discovery that took place from 1940 to 1960,” said Chan.
Lam hopes her “innovative” research will encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest. “I hope it will attract some interest, because what we have discovered is quite different from antibiotics,” she says.
“Some people have been telling me ‘Please work harder, so that we can have a solution and put it out on the market.’ But with research, you need to have a lot of patience because we still have quite a long way to go.”