Engineers battle superbugs with star-shaped 'peptide polymers'

"Overall, SNAPPs show great promise as low-cost and effective antimicrobial agents," researchers wrote in their newly published paper.
By Brooks Hays   |   Sept. 13, 2016 at 12:12 PM
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MELBOURNE, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Engineers in Australia have discovered a new way to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The new antibacterial weaponry is called peptide polymers.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Microbiology, the short, star-shaped chains of proteins hold promise as a substitute for antibiotics.

As more and more bacterial strains develop resistance to antibiotics, scientists around the world have grown increasingly concerned with the spread of superbugs.

"It is estimated that the rise of superbugs will cause up to ten million deaths a year by 2050," Greg Qiao, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Melbourne, warned in a news release. "In addition, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years."

Qiao and his colleagues at Melbourne have been studying the microbial-fighting powers of peptide polymers for the last few years. Recent experiments suggest star-shaped polymers are effective at neutralizing Gram-negative bacteria, a class of microbes adept at quickly acquiring resistance to antibiotics.

The official name for the new class of weapons is "structurally nanoengineered antimicrobial peptide polymers," or SNAPPs for short.

Importantly, the star-shaped polymers proved safe for use in humans. Scientists had to amplify normal dosage rates by a factor of 100 before the polymers proved toxic to human blood cells.

In animal models, the star-shaped protein chains proved effective at killing Gram-negative bacteria. In Petri dish tests, the bacteria showed no signs of developing resistance to the polymers.

Researchers suggest the polymers' success is derived from their ability to neutralize bacteria in several different ways, whereas antibiotics only have one strategy for killing bacteria.

"Overall, SNAPPs show great promise as low-cost and effective antimicrobial agents and may represent a weapon in combating the growing threat of [multidrug-resistant] Gram-negative bacteria," scientists concluded.

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