Algae with a secret surprise fought deadly pneumonia

Algae with a secret surprise fought deadly pneumonia

Algae with a secret surprise fought deadly pneumonia

Fangyu Zhang and Zhengxing Li

Fangyu Zhang and Zhengxing Li

The miracles of modern medicine strike again: Scientists have managed to generate a modified version of algae capable of carrying tiny, antibiotic-filled capsules into the bodies of mice to fight deadly lung infections. The results help raise hopes that a similar therapy could one day cure critically ill human patients suffering from the same type of bacterial infection.

The key to this work lies in drug-delivering nanoparticles that are tens to tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a single hair. Researchers at the University of California San Diego found that their nanoparticle-infused algae was able to fight pneumonia infections in mice and allow them to survive for weeks after treatment — in stark contrast to the untreated mice, which died within three days. The team’s work was published on Thursday i Natural materials.

The effectiveness of antibiotics is limited, ironically, by the body’s own metabolism and immune system. When we take pills orally or get antibiotics intravenously, these drugs embark on a journey to get to where they need to go. They must cross a series of barriers and membranes while avoiding detection by patrolling cells. The UCSD researchers wanted to use nanoparticles to give antibiotics a shortcut to the site of infection. Their size combined with a coating to mimic a type of immune cell would spell safe passage for the drugs hidden within them.

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“With an IV injection, sometimes only a very small fraction of the antibiotic will enter the lungs,” study co-author and UCSD pharmacy researcher Victor Nizet said in a news release. This is why very sick patients will die from pneumonia, even with antibiotic treatment. This nanoparticle therapy, Nizet said, has the potential to wipe out these deadly bacteria and save patients’ lives.

The researchers’ nanoparticles cannot move by themselves – they need some help to travel around the body, as well as avoid being caught by the body’s immune system. So the researchers embedded the tiny drug-filled capsules in a species of single-celled green algae and released the swimmers into the tracheas of 12 mice infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a nasty bacterial pneumonia. The algae were able to escape capture by immune cells called macrophages by swimming away and instead heading for sites of infection – avoiding being engulfed by the macrophages as free-standing nanoparticles would.

All 12 mice given the algae-nanoparticle combination remained alive after 30 days, while untreated mice died within three days. And to boot, this new method outperformed intravenous treatment of the same antibiotic given at the same concentration; it took an IV dose of 3,000 times the antibiotic to produce the same effects.

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Furthermore, the researchers found that the nanoparticles and algae had no harmful effect on the mice’s cells and were broken down after the release of antibiotics. “Nothing toxic is left,” study co-author and UCSD nanoengineering researcher Joseph Wang said in the press release.

Currently, the researchers are further researching how the algae-nanoparticle duos interact with organisms’ immune systems. Eventually, they hope to turn the therapy into a life-saving treatment for ICU patients. That is, if people can stomach the thought of injecting tiny algae into their lungs.

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