Research at Villanova University yields new bacteria-busting molecule.
What started as a simple case of poison ivy turned into something more for Luke Minbiole. The two year old developed bumps on the skin, then his eyes swelled shut.
Tests confirmed he had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a strain of staph infection that can be challenging to treat.
“At some point when the doctors said, ‘okay, we are going to try the fourth different antibiotic now,’ you start to get nervous as a new parent, wondering, ‘what if the fourth antibiotic doesn’t work?'” says Kevin Minbiole, Luke’s father.
“And that kind of propels a geek like myself to do some MRSA research.”
Minbiole is a chemistry professor at Villanova University. His research wound up veering into disinfectant products, which turned out to have a surprisingly long, surprisingly consistent history.
“For about 80 years, people have been using compounds called quaternary ammonium compounds. I’ll just use the acronym, QACs,” he says. “Lysol uses compounds like this, and they’ve been pretty much the same for about 80 years, and they work great.”
Lysol and a lot of other surface cleaners rely on these QAC chemicals as their main bacteria-busting agents. They’re cheap to make, relatively non-toxic, and also very stable.
“But since they are so stable, they kind of hang around a lot. Bacteria have been exposed to them for decades and decades, and resistance has been starting to slowly emerge toward these compounds.”
When QACs come into contact with bacteria, they ‘lyse’ the cells, effectively eliminating them. With apologies to the scientific community, picture a little sword busting through the bacteria’s outer membrane.
Some strains of MRSA, after years of interaction with the same QACs, are starting to show a bit of fight, almost like they’re developing a thicker skin.
“Bacteria that are resistant essentially have a shield, so they can kind of fight off the sword, and basically push out these compounds,” says Minbiole.
He began thinking, what if there was a way to tweak the QACs–supercharge them–so that all the little swords work together against the bacteria? Along with his students at Villanova, he went to work combining and refining a process that tethered the QACs.
Instead of a sword, they’re now like a molecular pitchfork.
“It turns out the bacteria are not able to defend themselves against this. So the compounds that we build are no more toxic than things like what’s in Lysol, but they are much better at killing bacteria, and they show absolutely no susceptibility to that resistance that some of these bugs have,” he says.
Minbiole is partnering with researchers at Temple University to test that resistance. Early results find these ‘multiQACs’ have ten times the disinfectant power of the QACs in traditional Lysol against MRSA bacteria. Those findings were recently published in the American Chemical Society’s Infectious Diseases Journal.
Along with academic success, there’s the possibility of cleaning up financially. With backing from the University City Science Center, Minbiole and his team formed a company, NovaLyse. They’ve also filed for patents and are preparing an application to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates disinfectants.
Still, the whole endeavour has a long way to go.
“Weird ideas are all over the place, but it is hard to take something that it is a good, geeky idea, and translate it into something that you can produce and sell…that will kill the target organism and not kill the patient,” says Minbiole.
“So that’s the real challenge, is to design all those things into there, and we are still trying to make it work.”
If they get the government’s green light, Minbiole and his partners can begin testing the multiQACS in hospitals, and figure out how to mass produce it into spray bottles and wipes.
They’ll also need a better name because ‘multiQAC’ isn’t going to cut it.