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Swatting 'Superbugs' in Hospitals, Homes

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs have become a big public health concern, but the existing antibacterial cleaners and soaps on the market are often based on harsh chemicals that kill everything they come into contact with or leach out into the environment. In other cases, their effect is only temporary.

Now scientists are working on a new crop of antimicrobials—microscopic weapons that prevent or defeat bugs—to improve their effectiveness, kill specific types of bugs, or reduce their potential side effects on people and the environment. Researchers hope the new antimicrobials can be used to attack bacteria, viruses and fungus on everything from the human body to materials used to build homes, hospitals, boats and medical devices.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., recently developed a new way to kill methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA—one of the most widespread and deadliest superbugs—on contact using tiny tubes coated with proteins to destroy the bugs by deflating them like balloons.

Some 53 million individuals worldwide are believed to be infected with MRSA, according to a 2006 paper published in the Lancet. In the U.S., more than 275,000 were hospitalized with MRSA-related infections between 1999 and 2005, according to national data.

When Rensselaer professor Jonathan Dordick, a biochemical engineer, began his research in the 1990s, he wanted to figure out how to make enzymes—proteins that speed up biological reactions—work better in environments in which they don't typically occur. He hoped to create items like self-cleaning fabric, in which enzymes embedded in cotton could simply be activated by water to remove stains.

In his team's recent work, published last month in an American Chemical Society journal called ACS Nano, Dr. Dordick, Professor Ravi Kane and other colleagues investigated whether enzymes could be added to tubes a million times smaller in diameter than a human hair. These "nanotubes," could be inserted, along with the enzyme, into paint or other substances.

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