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Antibacterial gel from Queen's University Belfast scientists can kill the toughest of hospital superbugs

Research team leader Dr Garry Laverty and PhD student Alice McCloskey (right), who was named on the research paper. Included are summer students Sophie Watterson (second left) and Sophie Gilmore
Research team leader Dr Garry Laverty and PhD student Alice McCloskey (right), who was named on the research paper. Included are summer students Sophie Watterson (second left) and Sophie Gilmore

By Victoria O'Hara

A gel that can kill the deadly superbug that left four babies dead in neo-natal units across Northern Ireland has been created by a team of scientists at Queen's University.

The antibacterial gel could be a major breakthrough in the fight against the fatal diseases that infect hospital wards and theatres around the world.

Superbugs are now a major global health threat with drug-resistant bacteria causing around 400,000 infections and 25,000 deaths in Europe every year.

For two years the team led by Dr Garry Laverty researched and created the gel that destroys the bacteria.

The magic ingredient in the gel is a natural protein called peptides. When a superbug bacteria becomes attached to any surface – including medical implants such as hip replacements and catheters – they produce a jelly-like substance called biofilm.

Biofilms are the toxic coating or 'bubble' that harbour germs and are highly resistant to current treatments. But this antibacterial gel has the ability to break it down.

The gel is made up of natural proteins called peptins which can break through and attack the bacteria's cell membrane.

It is hoped that it could be used in a hospital environment and has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The research team says the gel can kill Pseudomonas aeruginosa, staphylococci and E.coli.

In 2012 four babies died of a pseudomonas outbreak in neo-natal units across Northern Ireland.

It left devastated families in its wake and cost the NHS millions of pounds in compensation.

The gel could also be used to coat medical equipment during an operation – such as a hip replacement – to stop the patient contracting a superbug.

Dr Laverty (31) said it had "great potential", and with further trials it could be made into powder form and placed into inhalers for people with serious chest or lung infections.

He said antibiotic-resistant superbugs were a huge and growing problem, not just in the UK but across the world.

"It is a major concern because even infections like TB, which generally used to be assumed to be an older infection in the last century, are coming back into the public domain," he said.

"Even what doctors would reserve in terms of the best antibiotics there is even resistance being shown against those.

"So we are trying to make something that is cost-effective and hopefully will work in a clinic."

Last month Prime Minister David Cameron said resistance to antibiotics was a "very real and worrying threat" and could lead to a future in which currently treatable injuries and ailments could prove fatal.

The new approach was developed as part of an international collaboration between Queen's University and the School of Chemistry at Brandeis University, Waltham, USA.

Dr Laverty, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, said it was important that, after successful research, the gel can actually benefit the patient.

"When bacteria attach to surfaces, including medical implants such as hip replacements and catheters, they produce a jelly-like substance which is called the biofilm.

"This protective layer is almost impossible for current antibiotics to penetrate through.

"Therefore bacteria deep within this protective layer are resistant as they remain unexposed to the therapy.

"They grow and thrive on surfaces to cause infections that are very difficult to treat.

"The only option is often to remove the medical implant, leading to further pain and discomfort for the patient. Our gels would prevent this.

"Our gels are unique as they target and kill the most resistant forms of hospital superbugs.

"You can put it on a wound, it would take the shape like putty almost.

"Because it is a protein it should promote healing as well as preventing infection."

Health Minister Edwin Poots said: "Anything that helps in the fight against healthcare associated infections is to be welcomed."

The findings will be published in the journal Biomacromolecules next month.

Superbug gel: Belfast teams who are pushing back medicine's boundaries 

How the gel works

  • It acts as a barrier to bacteria or infection, by attaching to surfaces like an anti-microbe forcefield.
  • The gel has the ability to break down a thick jelly-like coating, known as a biofilm, which covers bacteria and makes them highly resistant to current therapies. Healthy cells are unaffected by the gel’s action.
  • Biofilms are the toxic sludge that harbour germs and often form around medical devices implanted in the body, such as catheters, heart valves and hip implants.
  • Biofilms are notoriously difficult to penetrate with common antibiotics but the Queen’s University researchers say the gel can break through biofilms and directly attack the bacteria's cell membrane

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