Nano engineered peptide polymers clean up resistant ‘superbugs’

Nature’s prowess in making molecules with astounding properties, such as DNA, serves as important inspiration to Professor Greg Qiao, whose laboratory at the University of Melbourne has an impressive track record with synthesising nanomaterials with unusual new capabilities.

At the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, these materials are developed into innovative products in collaboration with industry, healthcare and academic partners. One notable application was the co-development of synthetic corneas with the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital. They are used to restore vision in patients who cannot source a cornea transplant.

Now, Professor Qiao is on the verge of needing yet another partner in the healthcare domain to realise the potential of nanomaterials that can kill disease-causing bacteria, including superbugs that have evolved resistance to multiple antibiotics.

Superbugs are the bane of hospitals, threatening the efficacy of surgery, organ and bone marrow transplants, dialysis and cancer chemotherapy. Without the development of new bacteria-killing agents, it has been estimated that, by 2050, superbugs will kill 10 million people a year — equivalent to one death every three seconds.

Professor Qiao’s antimicrobial agents are called SNAPP — structurally nano-engineered antimicrobial peptide polymers. They are made using the same building blocks that organisms use to make proteins, namely, amino acids. But SNAPP arranges amino acids into a novel, star-shaped configuration that makes a range of new chemical properties available to researchers.

We were the first group in the world to make protein-based star-shaped polymers. For the antimicrobial work, we made polymers with 16 or 32 arms arranged around a central core. They were screened at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences in collaboration with Associate Professor Neil O’Brian-Simpson and Professor Eric Reynolds.

Professor Greg Qiao

Having successfully cleared superbug infections in mice, Professor Qiao is now optimising SNAPP structures for the next phase of commercial development.

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