Medical experts call the march of the superbug a “slow tsunami”. Currently it kills an estimated 700,000 people a year, 230,000 of them newborn babies.
The overuse and miss use of antibiotics have led to Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on such a scale that it has become one of the biggest threats to global health. So much so that the UN convened a high level meeting on the issue in September 2016.
It is estimated that by 2050 superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics will kill 10 million people.
The warrior that could prevent this human catastrophe is Shu Lam, a 26-year-old Malaysian PhD student at the University of Melbourne. Where other scientists have been looking for new antibiotics to kill superbugs, Lam has approached the problem from a completely different angle.
Lam has developed a more direct, combative approach to getting rid of superbugs that could save the lives of millions.
She has not developed a super antibiotic to kill superbugs. She hasn’t developed an antibiotic at all. She has developed a star-shaped polymer that can kill six different superbug strains simply by ripping apart their cell walls.
“We’ve discovered that [the polymers] actually target the bacteria and kill it in multiple ways. 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,” Lam told Nicola Smith from The Telegraph.
This is a phenomenal breakthrough.
The research was published in the prestigious Nature Microbiology journal late last year, putting Lam in the international spotlight and drawing global praise for her work as a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine.
The star-shaped molecules each has 16 or 32 “arms” made from peptide polymers, a process she likens to putting together small blocks of Lego. When unleashed, the polymers attack the superbugs directly, unlike antibiotics, which create a toxic swamp that also destroys nearby healthy cells.
These star-shaped molecules are not a one lab test wonder.
Lam has tested her star-shaped polymers on six strains of drug-resistant bacteria in the lab, and on one superbug in live mice and even after multiple mutations none of the superbugs survived.
There is more.
Unlike antibiotics, which can also have a harmful effect on healthy cells, the star-shaped polymers that Lam has developed are non-toxic to healthy cells as they are too big to enter them.
Earliest possible warnings not heeded.
The discovery of penicillin in 1928 saved millions of lives and changed the world forever.
But even as doctors were then able to cure all manner of infections, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, sounded a warning during his Nobel Lecture in 1945: “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then 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.”