Fighting superbugs with their favourite food

Tuesday, 06 March, 2018

Fighting superbugs with their favourite food

Adelaide researchers have developed and patented a novel approach to fight superbugs, like golden staph, by targeting the bugs’ favourite food, iron.

Dr Katharina Richter and colleagues from The University of Adelaide are targeting how bacteria consume iron, to disrupt their ability to cause disease, make them vulnerable and ultimately kill them.

The researchers have commenced the first human trials of the treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The treatment is being trialled 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,” said Richter.

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

“In our studies so far, we haven’t observed any side effects. Moreover, the risk for resistance is low as bacteria are unlikely to become resistant to their preferred food.”

Katharina hopes the therapy can be refined so it can also be used to treat other superbug infections in the future.

The team are recruiting patients with chronic recurring sinus infections for the trials. “We are hoping that this treatment will improve the quality of life for patients after sinus surgery,” said the trials’ principal investigator Professor Peter-John Wormald. Professor Wormald is an ear, nose and throat surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and chair of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Adelaide.

“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.”

Richter completed her PhD at the University of Adelaide in 2017. Her 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. Richter recently won the Pitch it Clever Delegates’ Choice Award at the 2018 Universities Australia Higher Education conference.

Image caption: Golden staph, as seen under a scanning electron microscope. Image credit: Katharina Richter.

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