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Immunogene Therapy as New Weapon against Emerging Superbugs

Superbug or Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria / Photo by via Shutterstock


Much of the global scientific community is becoming convinced within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that nanotechnology is the optimal means by which to fight infections, and the pertinence of this is especially critical in conversations that look to the future. Medical science has been predicting for years through studies published by numerous institutions that superbugs are the threat of the future, that our methods of defending against bacteria for generations now have been contributing to the creation of stronger versions of preexisting infections. A preponderance of scientific evidence suggests, though, that silicon nanoparticles may be the ideal weapon with which to combat bacterial infection and, thus, may also be the answer to drug-resistant infections to come.

Some such bacteria are already circulating and attacking. So far, antimicrobial resistance is estimated to account for 23,000 deaths every year in the US and some 700,000 internationally. A study conducted in 2016, commissioned by Wellcome Trust, predicted that the current rate at which these superbugs are burgeoning can be expected to exceed the rate at which the US Food and Drug Administration approves new antimicrobial substances and that outpacing is theorized to be in effect by 2050. In other words, by that point, the FDA may very well already be behind the curve. That would result in far greater mortality rates from new virulent strains that the Wellcome Trust study predicts will exceed the current mortality rates of cancer.

Hongbo Pang of the University of Minnesota helped find the first example of effective gene therapy tactics for hedging against lethal infections with so-called nanotherapeutic, which would administer short interfering RNA (siRNA). That siRNA would then target immune system cells, and this method of fighting superbugs is referred to as immunogene therapy according to the study that Pang and colleagues published in Nature Communications. He conducted the study with others from the Sanford Burnham Medical Discovery Institute, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the University of California, San Diego. “This study perfectly demonstrates the great potential of targeted nanotechnology in treating various human diseases,” according to Pang, a professor in the pharmacy department at the University of Minnesota.



The research isn’t groundbreaking per se inasmuch as this is an avenue of exploration down which medical science has been trending for some time. Nanoparticles are arguably the real wave of the future just as much as superbugs themselves. They’re being used for all sorts of different, interdisciplinary applications, and in medical science, they’re used to administer medication with precision or even carry genetic material, among innumerable other things. In fact, one of the reasons why the University of California, San Diego was involved in the study is because of their progress with applications in medical science. Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila is a postdoctoral researcher at UC San Diego, and she was recently involved in a study that produced proof-of-concept, multifunctional nanobots that can navigate the bloodstream to target and obviate toxins and bacteria.

These nanobots are powered by ultrasound technology, and each is only two micrometers in width, which is mind-boggling microscopic. In tandem with gold nanowires and natural blood cells, these nanobots are made to bind to lethal bacteria such as MRSA, for example, and eradicate the toxins that said bacteria release. “We wanted this work to present a new all-in-one nanorobot for different functionalities in a single treatment. So in this specific study, we have developed nanorobots that are combined with cell membrane coatings. These nanorobots are based on a body that is made of metallic wire, specifically golden wire, and these golden wires are combined with a dual cell coating composed of red blood cells and platelets. We use platelets because they can interact with bacteria, and we used the red blood cells because they neutralize the toxins produced by these bacteria.”


Nanobots in the bloodstream / Photo by Evgeniy Mahnyov via Shutterstock


Professor Joseph Wang, lead researcher on the UCSD study, reports that the nanobots are also an excellent tool for decontamination of hazardous materials, yet they can be presented through the bloodstream as to get rid of toxins and pathogens as well. Jokingly, he compares it to the old film, Fantastic Voyage, in which a submarine is miniaturized to this microscopic, cellular level for an intricate medical surgery from within the blood vessel. This represents the closest that has come to reality with nanobots some 25 times smaller than the breadth of a human hair and the ability to travel at about 35 micrometers per second via ultrasound propulsion.

One of Pang’s colleagues on the immunogene therapy study in Nature Communications is Michael Sailor of the University of California, San Diego, and he says the findings represent “a really great example of convergent research. To get this concept to work, we needed to combine our nanomaterials expertise at UCSD and the membrane and cell biology expertise at [the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology] with the peptides and disease models developed by our biomedical collaborators at the [Sanford Burnham Medical Discovery Institute] and UMN.”  Pang’s team found that gene therapeutics might be the best way to attack a broad litany of bacterial infections, including strains that aren’t yet fully understood on account of being so new.



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