Scientists find fungi killer in plastics

SINGAPORE - The same plastic used in disposable drink bottles could one day be used to fight fungal infections, scientists in Singapore have discovered.

Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) and an IBM research centre in California converted the plastic, called polyethylene terephthalate - or PET - into tiny assemblies of nanofibres.

These can destroy the cell walls of fungal cells, rendering them ineffective.

The experts said that one day, the new material could be used to treat fungal infections that affect patients with weakened immune systems - such as those with cancer or HIV, and those who have had organ transplants.

Project leader Yang Yi Yan of IBN told The Straits Times that such patients are susceptible to meningitis and blood and lung infections caused by common fungal strains.

The global cost of treating fungal infections is expected to reach US$6 billion (S$7.5 billion) next year.

Some of these infections are resistant to conventional anti-fungal drugs, Dr Yang said, adding: "Most anti-fungal drugs can only suppress but not cure a fungal infection, so it will come back."

Dr Yang and her team tested the plastic nanofibres on fungal cells in the lab and used a solution of eyedrops containing the nanofibres to treat fungal eye infections in mice.

The team also showed that low concentrations of the nanofibres were not toxic to healthy human cells - even as they killed fungal cells - and did not encourage drug resistance.

Their work was published in the journal Nature Communications on Monday.

The scientists now hope to work with pharmaceutical companies to commercialise the PET fibres as an anti-fungal treatment.

IBN executive director Jackie Ying said: "Our latest breakthrough with IBM allows us to specifically target and eradicate drug-resistant and drug-sensitive fungi strains and fungal biofilms, without harming surrounding healthy cells.

"We hope to eventually apply this technology clinically to help the large number of patients worldwide who suffer from fungal infections."

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