S'pore scientists develop new gel that can destroy 'superbugs'

Photo above: The research team (from left to right): Dr James L. Hedrick, IBM Research, Dr Yi-Yan Yang, IBN Group Leader, Dr Shaoqiong Liu, IBN Research Scientist, Dr Jeremy Tan, IBN Research Scientist and Li Yan, IBN PhD Candidate.

SINGAPORE - Singapore researchers today unveiled the first-ever antimicrobial hydrogel that can break apart biofilms and destroy multidrug-resistant superbugs upon contact.

Tests have demonstrated the effectiveness of this novel synthetic material in eliminating various types of bacteria and fungi that are leading causes of microbial infections, and preventing them from developing antibiotic resistance.

This discovery may be used in wound healing, medical device and contact lens coating, skin infection treatment and dental fillings.

The tests were carried out by researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) and IBM Research.

Dr Yi-Yan Yang, Group Leader at IBN said: "The mutations of bacteria and fungi, and misuse of antibiotics have complicated the treatment of microbial infections in recent years. Our lab is focused on developing effective antimicrobial therapy using inexpensive, biodegradable and biocompatible polymer material.

"With this new advance, we are able to target the most common and challenging bacterial and fungal diseases, and adapt our polymers for a broad range of applications to combat microbial infections."

More than 80 per cent of all human microbial infections are related to biofilm. Biofilms are microbial cells that can easily colonise on almost any tissue or surface.

They contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections, which are among the top five leading causes of death in the US and account for US$11 billion in healthcare spending each year.

In Singapore, antimicrobial drug resistance is a major healthcare problem because of the extensive use of antibiotics and medical equipment such as intravascular catheters and orthopedic implants in patients.

Once in the body, these instruments become potential breeding grounds for bacterial growth. This provides a continuous source of contamination, which could result in prolonged hospitalization, higher medical costs and a greater risk of death.

Research has shown that patients in Singapore with microbial infections are 10.2 times more likely to die during their hospitalisation, have 4.6 times longer hospitalisation stays, and incur 4 times higher hospitalisation costs compared to patients with no infections.

The emergence of new strains of superbugs and the shortage of new drugs has exacerbated the need for an effective antimicrobial solution. Traditional household antiseptics and disinfectants are also proving to be ineffective in eliminating drug-resistant germs.

The new synthetic gel developed is biodegradable, biocompatible and cost-effective. With over 90 per cent water content, the hydrogel is highly flexible and easy to adapt for different uses.

"The soft consistency of our non-toxic materials makes them ideal for injectable and topical applications as well as coatings and lubricants for medical devices such as catheters," said Dr James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, IBM Research.

This gel can target the bacteria and fungi behind seven of the most common hospital-acquired infections. Once the antimicrobial function is performed, the biodegradable gel can be naturally eliminated by the body.

yamadak@sph.com.sg