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Superbug Solution? Light-Activated Nanoparticles Kill More Than 90 Percent Of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

The war against antibiotic resistance is raging on, and humans may soon find an ally in the form of adaptive and light-activated nanotherapy developed and endorsed by University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

In the United States alone, drug-resistant bacteria such as E. coli, Staphylococcus, and salmonella affect about two million individuals and kill at least 23,000 every year. These superbugs continue to dominate because of the bacteria’s unimpeded ability to adapt and become immune to common antibiotic treatments.

Researchers who published their findings in the journal Nature Materials then suggested a way to fight this large-scale concern: think small – think very small.

The team introduced quantum dots, or light-activated nanoparticles that are around 20,000 fold smaller than human hair, resembling tiny commercial semiconductors. The nanoparticles succeeded in killing 92 percent of drug-resistant lab-grown bacterial cells.

"By shrinking these semiconductors down to the nanoscale, we're able to create highly specific interactions within the cellular environment that only target the infection," said senior study author and CU-Boulder assistant professor Prashant Nagpal in a press release.

According to previous studies, metal nanoparticles such as those crafted from gold and silver can effectively fight antibiotic-resistant infections. The danger, however, is they can also wreak havoc on surrounding cells indiscriminately.

In contrast, these quantum dots can be adjusted to specific infections owing to their light-activated mechanisms. They are inactive in the dark and active on command via light exposure, enabling scientists to adjust the wavelength to kill the affected cells.

Nagpal said that while superbugs can adapt to common therapies, they can rapidly tailor quantum dots to produce a new form of therapy and perform optimally in this critical race against resistant bacteria.

The specificity of the solution may therefore help avoid the likely side effects of other superbug treatment options, as well as steer new research and clinical trials forward.

Researcher and senior study author Anushree Chatterjee underscored the importance of antibiotics not just in bacterial infection management, but also in cancer and HIV treatment.

"Failure to develop effective treatments for drug-resistant strains is not an option, and that's what this technology moves closer to solving,” the researcher said.

In December, health officials sounded the alarm on a “phantom menace” superbug, which is part of bacterial group carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned in its report that they often lead to death in nearly 50 percent of infection cases.

Photo: Umberto Salvagnin | Flickr

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