A 25-Year-Old PhD Student Created Microscopic Throwing Stars to Fight Superbugs

But experts warn that these polymer stars have yet to be tested in humans.

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Sep 30 2016, 5:55pm

Bacteria. Image: CDC/Wikimedia

A powerful supervillain calls for a powerful weapon, even when you're talking about real world enemies like antibiotic resistant bacteria.

That's why a team of researchers has started investigating a potential new strategy for killing off resistant superbugs: microscopic throwing stars that rip the bacteria apart from inside your body.

So far, they've only been tested in a small animal trial, but the researchers from the University of Melbourne recently showed that these little stars—which are made of strands of proteins called peptides—were very effective at destroying antimicrobial resistant bacteria while being non-toxic to mammalian cells.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered before we start calling this the solution to antibiotic resistance, but it's a novel approach to a problem that's growing increasingly worrisome by the day, and could at the very least inspire some outside-the-box thinking to tackling this dire threat.

"It's intriguing but we have a long ways to go," said Dr. Laura Kahn, a researcher and public health expert at Princeton University. "Don't get too excited by it yet."

Antibiotic resistance is a natural process: eventually, bacteria develop resistance to any antibiotic. But recently that process has been drastically sped up due to our overuse of antibiotics in doctors' offices, hospitals, and farmers' fields. This has lead to the emergence of infectious bacteria that are resistant to multiple kinds of antibiotics, including "last resort" treatments that are rarely used because of their intense side effects.

The World Health Organization has warned that antibiotic resistance is a serious global threat, and that if we don't take action, we could risk slipping back into a dark ages of medicine, where safe surgery is impossible and even a scraped knee could be deadly.

"It's basically like playing with Lego."

That's why researchers—lead by a 25-year-old PhD student named Shu Lam—at Melbourne decided to test out this novel technology. The stars, called structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers or SNAPPs, are created by linking together chains of proteins.

"It's basically like playing with Lego," Lam told VICE. "You have small building blocks which you assemble together, you link all of the protein units together to make a long chain, and this chain is called a polymer."

The SNAPPs, when exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, were great at tearing apart the bacteria's outer membranes. This alone can kill the bacteria, but it also prevents the bacteria from being able to multiply. And since the SNAPPs directly target the bacteria, and actually prefer the bacteria over other cell tissue, they could potentially be more effective than antibiotics, which just wipe out any bacteria it encounters.

But Kahn warned that there are lot of hurdles this technology would need to clear before human trials should even be considered.

"All bets are off until it's tried in people," Kahn told me. "When you insert a nanoparticle like that into the bloodstream of a human, who knows what's going to happen? It could destroy red blood cells, it could set off an autoimmune disorder. The efficacy is evident, it disrupts the membranes [of bacteria cells], the safety is a whole other story."

Kahn pointed out that the safety hasn't even really been proven in mice yet. In the research published by Lam and her colleagues this month in Nature Microbiology, the SNAPPs were tested out in the mice's peritoneums—a sort of fatty tissue that surrounds abdomen and is susceptible to bacterial infection. Treating an infection in this scenario is different than treated an infection in the blood stream.

Kahn also questioned whether these nanoparticles could potentially pile up and create a complex in the bloodstream—something we can't yet rule out based on this early info. She said there may be an application for this kind of treatment in a less invasive infection, such as through a topical cream to treat skin infections, but it's too early to say.

Read more: Good News: There's A Plan to Save Us From Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs

So SNAPPs may not be our secret weapon for antibiotic resistance, after all, but at the very least this research shows that creative solutions are emerging from many scientific disciplines (Lam works in a chemistry lab, not a biology or medical lab). As stand on the edge of a terrifying, antibiotic-free future, innovative ideas are more than welcome.

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