A team of researchers at Cape Breton University, working with a life-science company in Halifax, is confident it has found a chink in the armour of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains commonly known as "superbugs."

Superbugs are pathogens that have evolved to be immune to antibiotics.

The research project, based out of Cape Breton University and funded by Halifax-based Chelation Partners and the National Research Council of Canada, is focused on finding a way around that resistance.

Starving bacteria of iron

Trisha Ang and Roger Gumbau-Brisa are post-doctoral researchers working on the project, supervised by Dr. Matthias Bierenstiel, an associate professor in Cape Breton University's chemistry department.

Their research is built on the concept of weakening bacteria by starving them of iron. 

"Iron is an essential nutrient for cellular growth — and in turn, essential for the growth of bacteria," Ang said.

"By denying iron to bacteria you're inhibiting their growth, inhibiting their spread."

Vulnerable target

In this weakened state, the bacteria would then be a vulnerable target for a round of antibiotics, Gumbau-Brisa said.  

"Their sensitivity to antibiotics is increased."

The two chemists and a team of other scientists have developed a chemical compound known as a polymer that strips iron from the blood plasma.

'One-two punch'

Ang uses the metaphor of a long string to describe the action.  

"A fishing line that has multiple hooks on it that can steal away the iron, and latch on to it."

Ang characterizes the process as a "one-two punch." First, the polymer is injected into the body to strip away the iron from the bacteria. It's then "hit" by a dose of antibiotic.

Gumbau-Brisa said the research team is testing the polymer they've developed on rodents at this point, but the group plans to bring in physicians later who will conduct tests on human patients.  

Ang says the polymer has proven to be non-toxic.

With files from Information Morning