Star shaped polymers: A new hope against superbugs?

MELBOURNE: A team of researchers from the Melbourne School of Engineering has developed star-shaped structures, known as ‘peptide polymers’, which have shown promise in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or ‘superbugs’. The study, published in Nature Microbiology, could herald a new era in the treatment of superbug infections.

The team, led by Professor Greg Qiao and including PhD candidate Shu Lam, Associate Professor Neil O’Brien-Simpson, and Professor Eric Reynolds, created these star-shaped peptide polymers, which have proven to be extremely effective at killing Gram-negative bacteria. This class of bacteria is known to be highly prone to antibiotic resistance.

Currently, the only treatment for infections caused by bacteria is antibiotics. However, bacteria mutate over time to protect themselves against antibiotics, rendering treatments ineffective. These mutated bacteria are known as ‘superbugs’. “It is estimated that the rise of superbugs will cause up to ten million deaths a year by 2050. In addition, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years,” said Professor Qiao.

The star-shaped peptide polymers developed by the team have shown to be non-toxic to the body, even at dosages more than 100 times the effective rate. They have also proven effective in killing superbugs in animal models, with the superbugs showing no signs of resistance against these peptide polymers.

Unlike most antibiotics, which kill bacteria through a single pathway, these star-shaped peptide polymers can kill bacteria through multiple pathways. One of these pathways includes ‘ripping apart’ the bacteria cell wall.

While more research is needed, the team believes that their discovery is the beginning of unlocking a new treatment for antibiotic-resistant pathogens. This breakthrough could potentially revolutionize the way we combat superbugs and antibiotic resistance, a growing global health concern.

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