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Superbugs may meet their match in these nanoparticles

‘Quantum dots’ mess with bacteria’s defenses, allowing antibiotics to work

7:00am, October 9, 2017

ARMED AND DANGEROUS  By producing a chemical that makes bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotic attack, quantum dots could help reboot medications that have lost their edge against hard-to-kill microbes.

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Antibiotics may have a new teammate in the fight against drug-resistant infections.

Researchers have engineered nanoparticles to produce chemicals that render bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotics. These quantum dots, described online October 4 in Science Advances, could help combat pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics (SN: 10/15/16, p. 11).

“Various superbugs are evolving too rapidly to be counteracted by traditional drugs,” says Zhengtao Deng, a chemist at Nanjing University in China not involved in the research. “Drug-resistant infections will kill an extra 10 million people a year worldwide by 2050 unless action is taken.”

In the study, antibiotics spiked with quantum dots fought off bacteria as effectively as 1,000 times as much antibiotic alone. That’s “really impressive,” says Chao Zhong, a materials scientist at ShanghaiTech University who was not involved in the study. “This is a really comprehensive study.”

Quantum dots, previously investigated as a tool to trace drug delivery throughout the body or to take snapshots of cells, are made of semiconductors — the same kind of material in such electronics as laptops and cell phones (SN: 7/11/15, p. 22). The new quantum dots are tiny chunks of cadmium telluride just 3 nanometers across, or about as wide as a strand of DNA.

When illuminated by a specific frequency of green light, the nanoparticles’ electrons can pop off and glom onto nearby oxygen molecules — which are dissolved in water throughout the body — to create a chemical called superoxide. When a bacterial cell absorbs this superoxide, it throws the microbe’s internal chemistry so off-balance that the pathogen can’t defend itself against antibiotics, explains study coauthor Anushree Chatterjee, a chemical engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Chatterjee and colleagues mixed various amounts of quantum dots into different concentrations of each of five antibiotics, and then added these concoctions to samples of five drug-resistant bacterial strains, such as Salmonella and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. In more than 75 percent of 480 tests of different antibiotic combinations on different bacteria, the researchers found that lower doses of antibiotics were required to kill or curb the growth of bacteria when the medicine was combined with quantum dots.

One limitation of this treatment is that the green light that activates the nanoparticles can shine through only a few millimeters of flesh, says coauthor Prashant Nagpal, a chemical engineer also at the University of Colorado Boulder. So these quantum dots could probably be used only to treat skin or accessible wound infections.

The researchers are now designing nanoparticles that absorb infrared light, which can pass through the body. “That could be really effective in deep tissue and bone infections,” Nagpal says.


C.M. Courtney et al. Potentiating antibiotics in drug-resistant clinical isolates via stimuli-activated superoxide generation. Science Advances. Published online October 4, 2017. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1701776.

Further Reading

L. Hamers. Scientists watch as bacteria evolve antibiotic resistanceScience News. Vol. 190, October 15, 2016, p. 11.

M. Rosen. Bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotic appears in U.S. Science News Online, May 27, 2016.

A. Witze. Quantum dots get a second chance to shine. Science News. Vol. 188, July 11, 2015, p. 22.

N. Seppa. New antibiotic candidate shows promiseScience News. Vol. 187, February 7, 2015, p. 10.

K. Baggaley. Fast test reveals drug-resistant bacteria. Science News Online, December 17, 2014.

N. Seppa. Drug resistance has gone global, WHO says. Science News Online, April 30, 2014.

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