Superbugs are a rising threat in the medical world and we are running out of antibiotics to defeat them. As such, a high-level UN meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow, 21 September.

As awareness and concern over the scourge of superbugs grows, a 25-year-old Malaysian PhD candidate, Shu Lam, has turned the tables by making a discovery on a possible alternative to antibiotics at Melbourne University after three-and-a-half years of research during her thesis work.

New class of antimicrobial agents found

She has developed a chain of star-shaped polymer molecules that she claims to kill superbugs by tearing the bacterial walls apart. The molecules are also targeted for bacteria only, not harming any human cells.

“What I've discovered is a class of new antimicrobial agents. We hope that these will be replacements for antibiotics," Lam said.

The polymer molecules are synthetic and are made up of shorter chains of proteins, she added.

The molecules have been tested on mice that were infected with a superbug and were proved to be effective in curing the mice of the infection by the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Lam's supervisor, professor Greg Qiao has mentioned that Lam's research was still in early stages and more research needs to be done to perfect the recipe - ways to reduce the dosage, toxicity tests on human cells and the best formula and structure.

Lam agrees and said that any potential side-effects of the polymer molecules on the human body should be explored but preliminary results are promising as they have been target effective - as it only rips the walls of a bacteria cell apart, making it hard for the bacteria to resist.

“Even with all the money in the world, it would take at least five years to go to the first human test, because many resources and work are needed for its commercialisation,” Qiao said.

Hailing from Batu Pahat, Lam prefers to focus on research in the medical field instead of following her father's footsteps in medical training, who is a paediatrician. Her team is also looking at the use of polymers to treat cancer.

Understanding gut enteric pathogens to combat antimicrobial resistance

Elsewhere, in the University of California, Davis, scientists have contributed to the understanding on how gut pathogens can manipulate the human body's natural defense mechanisms to their advantage, allowing them to grow and thrive.

They have found that enteric pathogens such as E. coli deploy virulence factors that intentionally damage the intestinal lining to cause diarrhea. As such, the body reacts by accelerating the division of epithelial cells that form the intestinal lining, bringing immature cells to the mucosal surface to repair the damage. The immature cells contain more oxygen that allows the pathogens to grow, outcompeting anaerobic friendly bacteria in our gut.

The group led by Andreas Bäumler, a professor of medical microbiology and immunology at UC Davis School of Medicine, claims that their research has managed to highlight important implications for developing new treatment strategies that could target factors compromising the intestinal-lining function or bolster microbiota composition to offer assistance or resistance to invading pathogens.

"The rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria has become a major public health threat worldwide, Bäumler said.”As more bacterial strains do not respond to the drugs designed to kill them, the advances made in treating infectious diseases over the last 50 years are in jeopardy."

This year, three drug-resistant organisms - Clostridium difficile, Carbapenem enterobacteriaceae and Neisseria gonorrhoeae – have been identified by the United States Centre of Disease Control and Prevention as requiring urgent attention.

In May, the UK government comissioned a report that stated a prediction that by 2050, antimicrobial-resistant infections could cost up to USD$100 trillion from the global economy and claim 10 million lives a year if the issue is not addressed as soon as possible.

Doctors should avoid prescribing “last resort” antibiotics

Closer to home, associate professor Hsu Li Yang from the Tropical Diseases and Public Health & Policy departments at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in the National University of Singapore said that antimicrobial resistance is a pressing concern and that Singapore should play a part in combating the problem.

With Singapore being a popular industrial hub, many infections can now easily be “imported” through travellers. As such, doctors can be uncertain when diagnosing a particular infection and use a stronger antibiotic than needed.

“Whenever a new strain of drug-resistant pathogen emerges and spreads, our existing arsenal of antibiotics to treat the resulting infections shrinks,” he states, adding that, “Stakes are raised further when doctors fall back on "last resort" antibiotics that come with hefty price tags and serious side effects.”

This predicament is aggravated by the scarcity of new classes of antibiotics in the drug- development pipeline, because the development of new antibiotics has been, for the most part, much less lucrative for pharmaceutical companies, compared with drugs for treating cancer or chronic illnesses.

Thus, Hsu urges doctors to be educated to make proper decisions in prescribing antibiotics to minimise antimicrobial resistance. MIMS


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