Bacteria shredding liquid metal could take the fight to superbugs

  Last updated January 15, 2020 at 2:55 pm


A shape-shifting liquid metal has been used to ruthlessly rip apart bacteria and could be the answer to antibiotic resistance. It’s basically the Terminator T-1000.

antibiotic resistance research_liquid metal nanoparticles_superbug research

Precision-engineered magnetic liquid metal nanoparticles, which change shape and develop sharp edges after exposure to a magnetic field (image magnified 1,000 times). Credit: RMIT

Why This Matters: Antibiotic resistance is a huge threat globally, and without further action it could become even more deadly.

Researchers have created nano-sized particles of magnetic liquid metal to shred bacteria and bacterial biofilm – the protective layer that bacteria thrive in – without harming good cells.

A shape-shifting liquid metal ruthless killer? It’s basically T-1000 from Terminator 2, but for superbugs.

Published in the journal ACS Nano, the research led by RMIT researchers offers a new direction in the search for better bacteria-fighting technologies.

However, the research is still in its early days. While the team has had positive results in the laboratory, it’s only just beginning testing in animals. With positive results there the team hope to move into human testing in the coming years.

Antibiotic resistance is a major global health threat, causing at least 700,000 deaths a year. Without action, the death toll could rise to 10 million people a year by 2050, overtaking cancer as a cause of death.

The biggest issues are the spread of dangerous drug-resistant superbugs and the growth of bacterial biofilm infections, which can no longer be treated with existing antibiotics.

Also: Explainer: What is a superbug?

A new way to kill bacteria

The RMIT team toook a different approach, instead physically attacking the cells using droplets of liquid metal.

When exposed to a low-intensity magnetic field, the tiny droplets change shape and develop sharp edges. When placed in contact with a bacterial biofilm, these sharp points break down the biofilm and physically rupture the bacterial cells.

In their study, the researchers tested the effectiveness of the approach against two types of bacterial biofilms (Gram-positive and Gram-negative).

After 90 minutes of exposure, both were destroyed and 99% of the bacteria were dead. Importantly, laboratory tests showed the droplets did not affect human cells.

liquid metal drops estroying bacterial cells antibiotic resistance research

Golden Staph bacteria before (left) and after (right) exposure to the magnetic liquid metal nanoparticles. In the images, magnified 70,000 times, sharp pieces of liquid metal particle can be seen physically bursting the bacteria after treatment. Credit: RMIT.

Vi Khanh Truong, who led the research at RMIT, says the versatile technology could one day be used in a range of ways to treat infections.

“It could be used as a spray coating for implants, to make them powerfully antibacterial and reduce the high rates of infection for procedures like hip and knee replacements.”

“There’s also potential to develop this into an injectable treatment that could be used at the site of infection,” he says.

Antibiotics are losing effectiveness

There is a pressing need for new ways to treat bacterial infections. While antibiotics have revolutionised health since they were discovered 90 years ago, they’re losing effectiveness due to misuse.

This means we’re going to need to rethink how we fight bacterial infections.

“We’re heading to a post-antibiotic future, where common bacterial infections, minor injuries and routine surgeries could once again become deadly,” says Aaron Elbourne who was also involved in the research.

“Bacteria are incredibly adaptable and over time they develop defences to the chemicals used in antibiotics, but they have no way of dealing with a physical attack,” he says.

Also: Antibiotic promise in superbug war

“Our method uses precision-engineered liquid metals to physically rip bacteria to shreds and smash through the biofilm where bacteria live and multiply.”

“We hope this technology could be the way to help make antibiotic resistance history.”

The next stage for the research – testing the effectiveness of the technology in pre-clinical animal trials – is underway.

The team also plans to explore how it could be adapted for other uses, such as treating fungal infections, breaking through cholesterol plaques or being injected directly into cancer cells.

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