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Human trials target superbugs

Health

The first human trials of a new approach to fight superbugs by starving them of iron are underway in South Australia.

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Superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as golden staph, cannot be killed by existing methods and cause 700,000 deaths globally every year.

The threat from superbugs to human health is likely to worsen, with the World Health Organization predicting 10 million people will die each year due to antibiotic resistance by 2050.

Dr Katharina Richter and colleagues from the University of Adelaide have developed and patented a novel approach to fight superbugs by targeting the bugs’ favourite food – iron.

The South Australian researchers targeted how bacteria consume iron to make them vulnerable and ultimately kill them.

“Iron is like chocolate for bacteria. It gives them energy to grow, cause disease, and withstand attacks from our immune systems and antibiotics,” said Dr Richter.

“Using two different compounds, we first starve the bacteria of iron and then feed them the bacterial equivalent of poisonous chocolate, which the hungry bacteria find irresistible.

“This ‘double whammy’ approach has defeated superbugs like golden staph in laboratory and animal studies.”

The treatment is being trialled at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide to help patients with antibiotic-resistant sinus infections – with the two compounds included in a wound-healing gel.

“The treatment is locally applied at the infection site, precisely where it is needed without interfering with the entire body,” Dr Richter said.

Dr Richter said a key benefit of the treatment is that the risk for resistance is low because bacteria are unlikely to become resistant to their preferred food.

The team is recruiting patients with chronic recurring sinus infections for the trials and hopes the therapy can be refined so it can also be used to treat other superbug infections.

Dr Richter’s doctoral research was partially funded by The Hospital Research Foundation. She is now continuing this research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Adelaide and the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research. Dr Richter also recently won the Pitch it Clever Delegates’ Choice Award at the 2018 Universities Australia Higher Education conference.

Ear, nose and throat surgeon at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and chair of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Adelaide Professor Peter-John Wormald said he hoped the treatment would improve the quality of life for patients after sinus surgery

“By better treating the bacteria causing their infections we hope to extend the period of time patients are symptom-free, and potentially reduce their need for further surgery.”

South Australia’s capital Adelaide has three long-standing public universities, Flinders UniversityUniversity of South Australia and the University of Adelaide, each of which is renowned for its health research.

The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) is also a leader in the field and is part of the $3 billion Adelaide BioMed City precinct.

SAHMRI is home to about 600 researchers working across seven themes: Heart Health; Infection & Immunity; Aboriginal Health; Mind & Brain; Cancer; Healthy Mothers, Babies & Children; and, Nutrition & Metabolism.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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