Brain and Body

Scientists Killed over 90% of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria with New Nanoparticle Treatment

January 22, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Salmonella bacteria under a scanning electron microscope. False coloring.
Photo credit: NIAID

Bad news for Salmonella, E. coli, and Staph.

Antibiotic resistance is a problem on the rise, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year in the United States alone. Even more unsettling, a report released in December, the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, predicts that 300 million people will prematurely die by 2050 if the problem isn’t addressed.

Now, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new nanoparticle treatment that could help fight stubborn antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus. After testing the light-activated treatment with a lab-grown culture, the scientists observed that 92 percent of the drug-resistant bacterial cells were killed by the nanoparticles, and importantly, the other cells were left intact.

This isn’t the first time that nanoparticles have been used to fight bacteria. Previous research has shown that metal nanoparticles work successfully but with a price to pay —

damage to the healthy cells surrounding the infected ones.

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The new treatment involves what scientists call “quantum dots,” or light-activated therapeutic nanoparticles. These tiny particles are about 20,000 times smaller than a human hair, and resemble the semiconductors used in electronics. When these quantum dots are activated by light, they efficiently kill the targeted drug-resistant 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," Prashant Nagpal, senior author of the study, said in a press release.

By exposing the quantum dots to particular wavelengths of light, the researchers can tailor the nanoparticles to target particular infected cells. With this specific method, the researchers say the nasty side effects that come with certain existing treatments for infections could be either reduced or eliminated.

"Antibiotics are not just a baseline treatment for bacterial infections, but HIV and cancer as well," said Anushree Chatterjee, one of the researchers. "Failure to develop effective treatments for drug-resistant strains is not an option, and that's what this technology moves closer to solving."

Treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections must evolve with the evolution of the bacteria. While there’s still more work to be done before this new technology can be used in humans, this research, published in Nature Materials, offers a promising potential solution.

"While we can always count on these superbugs to adapt and fight the therapy,” said Nagpal, “we can quickly tailor these quantum dots to come up with a new therapy and therefore fight back faster in this evolutionary race.”

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