Antibiotic resistance a major threat to global health

Israeli find shown to combat antibiotic resistance by ‘pricking bacteria to death’

Ben Gurion University scientists develop substance containing ‘nano needles’ that lab tests indicate can overpower 90% of superbugs by physically destroying the pathogen

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A magnified image of the new 'nano needles' invented by scientists at Ben Gurion University in a bid to overcome antibotic resistance. (Courtesy/Ariel Kushmaro)
A magnified image of the new 'nano needles' invented by scientists at Ben Gurion University in a bid to overcome antibotic resistance. (Courtesy/Ariel Kushmaro)

Israeli scientists have developed a substance that overcomes antibiotic resistance by “pricking bacteria to death,” researchers at Ben Gurion University told the Times of Israel on Friday, in a breakthrough that could help combat a major threat to global health.

The substance contains “nano needles” which have a lethal effect on bacteria, and will be developed into topical creams and antibacterial coatings for surfaces, the scientists said, noting that it has shown 90% effectiveness in killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in lab conditions.

When bacteria stop being affected by antibiotics, it is known as antibiotic resistance, and these pathogens are sometimes colloquially called superbugs.

The World Health Organization considers this phenomenon “one of the biggest threats to global health.”

As antibiotics work by interfering with specific functions of bacteria, researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba decided to try a different approach: physically destroying the bacteria.

“Most antibiotics in use today work by affecting functions inside the bacteria, but our solution attacks the outside of the pathogen instead,” Nofar Yehuda, one of the scholars, told The Times of Israel. “Our solution is a material of tiny ‘nano needles’ that are basically poking the bacteria to death.”

The Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium, known for its antibiotic resistance (Christoph Burgstedt via iStock by Getty Images)

She described the process in more scientific language in peer-reviewed research, authored together with Ben Gurion professors Shoshana Arad, Ariel Kushmaro and Levi Ghebe and published in December.

They wrote that lab research results “clearly point to a direct effect of the spikes — via membrane disruption —on the bacteria, which culminated in cell death.”

Ben Gurion University PhD student Nofar Yehuda (courtesy of Nofar Yehuda)

Ben Gurion University’s technology transfer company has patented the substance and hopes to commercialize it.

The key ingredient is polysaccharides — long chains of carbohydrate molecules — derived from sea algae. They created the new substance by mixing the polysaccharides with tiny copper particles.

“When we create the mix, it creates a topography of ‘nano needles’ that are just one micron high,” said Yehuda, who is in the final year of her Ph.D. studies. “They make holes in the membranes of the bacteria, causing their insides to come spilling out, and kill them.

“As it works in a physical way — actually harming the bacteria physically — it won’t be subject to antibiotic resistance. This is important research given that there is a big search underway for substances that overcome antibiotic resistance.”

A study published last year by the Lancet medical journal estimated that in 2019, more than  1.2 million people died of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and noting that this was more deaths than those caused by leading global health threats like HIV/AIDS or malaria.

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