Discover E: Slayer of Super Bugs

Tucked away on the second floor of the Science Building on Eastern Washington University’s Cheney campus, you can find two narrow rooms where students and their mentor develop and analyze new strains of antibiotics that could one day save countless lives by destroying drug-resistant bacteria – while simultaneously protecting the environment and providing a boon to regional farmers.

Converted on a shoestring budget, the former storage room and very small classroom have become sterile laboratories that house drug-resistant bacteria, as well as their antimicrobial counterparts – endless combinations of newly synthesized strings of sugar based polymers manipulated at the elemental level to perform specific functions.

Under the tutorial eye of Travis Denton, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, students combine various “organic compounds” containing elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen with derivatives of corn-sugar in hopes of creating an antibiotic with the capacity to destroy so-called “super bugs,” bacteria which have evolved defenses against penicillin and other treatments, without attacking human cells.

“We’ve created antibiotics that can kill anything – super bugs such as MRSA (the antibiotic resistant bacteria that causes staph infections), mold, fungus, anything. Nothing we’ve put against this stuff has lived,” said Denton. “Theoretically, you could use one of our polymers in something like paint to keep mold from growing in a bathroom, but you couldn’t use it on people.”

Those human applications are what keep Denton and his students hunched over microscopes day after day; an endless search for the lottery-winning combination of molecules that will change the rampaging polymers, with the killing discrimination of a nuclear bomb, into one with the selectivity of a special-ops-trained sniper. “Optimizing the polymers so they kill the bacteria, but not skin, blood and other human cells is the biggest hurdle,” said Denton. “Our main goal is addressing those nosocomial – or hospital-acquired – infections.”

Indeed, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections, from various microorganisms, including bacteria, combine, cause or contribute to nearly 99,000 deaths per year in the United States. It’s estimated that overall direct medical costs to hospitals can be as high as $45 billion annually, and that the benefits of prevention could range from a low of $5.7 billion to a high of $31.5 billion.

In hopes of helping staunch the flow of both monetary and life losses, Denton and his team of undergraduate researchers are attempting to create an antibacterial polymer that can be merged with a catheter – either blended into the material so the tube itself acts as a deterrent or perhaps a salve that physically coats the area – so as to stop secondary infections acquired by patients.

CONTINUE READING THE FULL STORY OF HOW TRAVIS DENTON AND HIS STUDENTS ARE USING PLANT-BASE GLUCOSE POLYMERS IN THE RACE TO DEVELOP AN ANTIBACTERIAL DELIVERY SYSTEM THAT WILL BENEFIT PATIENTS, FARMERS AND THE ENVIRONMENT IN, DISCOVER E, THE RESEARCH MAGAZINE OF EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY.