Scientists study nanocapsules in the search for an antibiotic-free approach to superbugs
01/13/2021 // Michael Alexander // Views

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem around the world, with multiple strains of bacteria now showing adaptations designed to increase their protection against the drugs that have been formulated to kill them.

One such pathogen is Helicobacter pylori, which, according to current data, is carried by around 4.4 billion people worldwide, although it is most common in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

H. pylori, according to experts, usually reside in the gut and are normally harmless. However, they are known to cause ulcers in the stomach lining of people with impaired immune systems. In the more severe cases, those sores, according to experts, can lead to stomach cancer.

Treatment options for H. pylori normally involve a combination of antibiotics. These options, while effective, have the unwanted side effect of causing the emergence of resistant strains.

Because of this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included H. pylori on its list of antibiotic-resistant "priority pathogens" that pose the greatest threat to human health.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, however, a team of German and English scientists, have come up with a novel approach to combating antibiotic-resistant strains of dangerous pathogens: organic plant compounds.

As detailed in the journal ACS Applied Bio Materials, researchers from the University of Leeds, University of Münster, and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg found that nanocapsules loaded with curcumin – a natural compound found in turmeric which is known for its potent anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties – were effective against H. pylori in an in vitro test.


According to the researchers, the curcumin nanocapsules worked not by killing off the bacteria, but rather, by covering them with an “anti-adhesion” coating, thereby disabling its ability to stick to stomach cells where they can cause ill health or even death.

This property, as noted by the researchers, can be traced -- aside from its curcumin content -- to the nanocapsules' coating, which contains lysozyme, an enzyme that helps prevent bacterial infections, and dextran sulfate, a water-soluble polysaccharide that binds receptors in the bacteria and in the stomach’s mucosal lining. (Related: Superbugs: Drug-Resistant but Not Herb Resistant)

“Antimicrobial resistance is one of the biggest challenges facing the world and it is predicted to cause more deaths than cancer by the year 2050 unless urgent action is taken,” Francisco Goycoolea, a professor from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds and a co-author of the study, said.

As noted by the research team, while integral approaches are still needed to tackle antimicrobial resistance, their novel formulation, which consists of small capsules made from organic and all-natural ingredients, could be of great help when it comes to combating superbugs.

“Standard antibiotics used in today’s clinical practice are quite broad-acting compounds, disturbing cell wall architecture, protein formation of membrane integrity,” Andreas Hensel, a professor from the Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology and Phytochemistry of the University of Münster and another co-author of the study, said, adding that to be more effective, new medicines must not be as broad-acting as the older compounds but rather, more tailored to specific bacteria in order to avoid the emergence of resistant strains.

What are antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

Antibiotic resistance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a term used to describe what happens when bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.

According to experts, infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs are difficult -- if not impossible -- to treat, given that the pathogens have evolved to withstand most drugs designed to work against them. In most cases, infections caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens require extended hospital stays as well as additional follow-up doctor visits, and sometimes even costly and toxic medical treatments.

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