Light-activated nanoparticles prove effective 'superbugs'

Quantum dots can be tailored to combat antibiotic-resistant infections while not harming surrounding host cells.

In the ever-escalating evolutionary battle with drug-resistant bacteria, people may soon have an advantage due to adaptive, light-activated nanotherapy developed by researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

In findings published Jan. 18 in the journal Nature Materials, researchers at the department of chemical and biological engineering and the BioFrontiers Institute at the university describe new light-activated therapeutic nanoparticles known as "quantum dots," which are about 20,000 times smaller than a human hair and resemble the tiny semiconductors used in consumer electronics. The dots successfully killed 92% of drug-resistant bacterial cells in a lab-grown culture, the researchers said.

"By shrinking these semiconductors down to the nanoscale, we're able to create highly specific interactions within the cellular environment that only target the infection," said senior author Prashant Nagpal, an assistant professor in the Boulder department of chemical and biological engineering.

Previous research has shown that metal nanoparticles — created from gold and silver, among other metals — can be effective at combating antibiotic-resistant infections but can indiscriminately damage surrounding cells as well.

The quantum dots, however, can be tailored to particular infections because of their light-activated properties. The dots remain inactive in darkness but can be activated on command by exposing them to light, allowing researchers to modify the wavelength in order to alter and kill the infected cells.

"While we can always count on these superbugs to adapt and fight the therapy, we can quickly tailor these quantum dots to come up with a new therapy and, therefore, fight back faster in this evolutionary race," Nagpal said.

The specificity of this innovation may help reduce or eliminate the potential side effects of other treatment methods, as well as provide a path forward for future development and clinical trials.

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