Squashing the superbugs

UND researchers help develop synthetic molecule to fight multidrug-resistant bacteria

Superbugs research

An international research team, including biomedical specialists at UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, have developed a synthetic molecule that can kill five deadly types of multidrug-resistant bacteria with limited side effects.

An international research team led by the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) at A*STAR (Singapore), IBM Research, and UND has developed a synthetic molecule that can kill five deadly types of multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacteria with limited side effects.

Min Wu

Dr. Min Wu

The new material has the potential to be developed into an antimicrobial drug to treat patients with so-called “superbug” infections. This finding was reported recently in the scientific journal Nature Communications, which provided open access to the article.

“There is a desperate need for innovative anti-microbial treatments to counteract the international crisis of MDR infection,” noted Dr. Min Wu, professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and an immunologist who has made a series of contributions to understanding molecular pathogenesis. “As many previously treatable bacteria are fast becoming antibiotic-resistant superbugs, even some last-line antibiotics are struggling to control infections.”

According to Wu, superbugs kill around 700,000 people worldwide each year, largely because bacteria are starting to develop resistance to the last-line antibiotics, which are given only to patients infected with bacteria resistant to weaker antibiotics. By 2050, 10 million people could die annually from these infections if these antibiotics continue to lose their effectiveness.

To address this problem, IBN brought together a multidisciplinary research team from the U.S., China, and Singapore to develop a new class of synthetic antimicrobial polymers called guanidinium-functionalized polycarbonates with a unique mechanism that can target a broad range of MDR bacteria and is biodegradable and non-toxic to human cells.

Marc Basson

Dr. Marc Basson

SMHS collaborators on the project included Wu and Qinqin Pu, an exchange graduate student in UND’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. Wu and Pu tested the effectiveness of the polymers on mice with two types of systemic infections caused by superbugs: peritonitis (an infection of the stomach’s inner lining) and certain lung infections. The polymers eliminated the bacterial infections in both groups of mice with negligible toxicity.

“As a clinician, I see this as a major potential advance,” added Dr. Marc Basson, SMHS senior associate dean for medicine and research. “A new and apparently non-toxic antimicrobial with a different mechanism of action would be exciting in itself. If it turns out that microbes don’t develop resistance to it, that would be extraordinary.”

IBN, IBM, and UND are seeking collaborations with pharmaceutical firms to develop the polymers into an antimicrobial treatment for patients, meaning that Wu’s project is one of many projects at the SMHS that fall under the category of clinical and translational research (CTR): research that “translates” discoveries made at the laboratory bench for clinical implementation to directly benefit patients. The SMHS has made CTR a priority in recent years, especially in the area of human-microbe interaction through a grant supported by the National Institutes of Health.

By Brian James Schill, UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences