Hospitals in Texas and across the country are doing a better job these days in stopping the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in health care settings.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these so-called "superbugs" still kill up to 23,000 people a year.
He Dong, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, is part of a team creating a new method to prevent these infections, not with drugs, but by developing a new synthetic nanomaterial.
How bacteria can become resistant to drugs:
Most small-molecule antibiotics function by penetrating bacteria and acting on specific molecular components inside the bacteria. However, over time the bacteria becomes very smart, so they can change their molecular components. They change their response to antibiotics, so that these antibiotics can't really find the molecular targets.
How these synthetic nanomaterials work:
These materials are very unique; they're not a single molecule. For the nanomaterials that we designed, we have many antibiotics that are assembled into a nanofiber shape, or they form a nanoneedle to punch the bacteria cell to kill them.
This is our first step, to develop these nanomaterials, in this case, nanofiber that physically disrupts bacteria. The second step is we're trying to combine our nanofiber with traditional antibiotics so that you will see a synergistic effect. So, part of these materials can physically disrupt the bacteria and part of the materials have their traditional benefits to go inside the cells to kill the bacteria.
What's next for the synthetic nanomaterial:
We're working really, really hard because this is such an interdisciplinary research project. We're going to test the antimicrobial activity of these materials in different animal models. So from there, I think we'll probably be more confident to see their real application pathway.
Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.