Canadian researchers developing 'Trojan horse' weapon to battle bacterial superbugs
Antibiotic resistance is a billion-dollar problem that health-care professionals say is “not going away” and will only get worse unless the federal government steps in.
But Canadian researchers in Manitoba are trying to blaze a new path using technology called magnetic nanoparticles. And for Winnipeg resident Shane Hartje, their potential success is extremely personal.
On June 5, 2016 he injured his spinal cord in a dirt biking accident that left him paralyzed below his chest. But it was in the hospital where his problems only became worse: he was infected with a bacterial superbug that was resistant to most antibiotics.
"There was only two types of (I.V.-based) antibiotics that were going to work on the bug and that was it,” Hartje told CTV Winnipeg. He spent several months battling the superbug before it was beaten.
But others aren’t so lucky.
Antibiotic resistance means that common bacterial infections are forcing doctors to use stronger and stronger medicines to treat the ever-more resistant bugs.
Frank Schweizer, a professor from the University of Manitoba, called it a “major problem” because “people die because of this."
As stories like Hartje’s are becoming increasingly prevalent, University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Song Liu is choosing to take a different approach.
He’s currently coordinating a team attempting to create a “series of material solutions to the problem of bacterial infections,” he told CTV Winnipeg.
Simply put, he wants to use biocides — poisonous, toxic substances — to kill the bacteria infecting surface wounds.
Back in March, Lui’s team and another group from the University of Waterloo announced they had developed the biocide as a way to bypass a superbug’s defences like a “Trojan horse.”
But the ongoing issue is that these biocides are non-selective. That means “they can also bring harm to our human skin cells.”
For them to be effective Lui’s team needed to figure out a way to quickly pull the toxic chemicals out of a wound, and their solution involves magnetic nanoparticles.
The work of graduate student Rachel Nickel, part of Lui’s team, involves coating the toxic biocide onto magnetic nanoparticles which will in turn, disrupt, or heat up and kill the bacteria.
Nickel believes that the nanoparticles could kill the pathogens which cling to medical devices.
"If we can cut down on say 10 per cent or 20 per cent of the hospital-acquired illnesses," Nickel said, it could make a “pretty big difference.”
Manitoba researchers are part of a larger group of scientists looking into so-called nanoantibiotics as a way to deal with antibiotic resistance. They are using nanoparticles to target bacteria because they won’t trigger the bacteria’s usual response mechanism.
For researchers like Lui, failure to come up with a solution could be catastrophic.
The World Health Organization estimates that each year, 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections. The group expects this number to spike to approximately 10 million by 2050.
From a report from CTV Winnipeg’s Jon Hendricks