Drug-resistant bacteria, or so-called superbugs, pose a very real threat to public health. The over prescription and consumption of antibiotics has contributed to a resilient new breed of germs that could see minor infections once again evolve into life-threatening conditions. The latest development in the fight against this threat comes from scientists at Queens University in Belfast, who have produced an antibacterial gel capable of breaking through a protective casing and killing off certain types of drug-resistant bacteria.

This protective layer has proven problematic in the development of drugs to fight superbugs. As the bacteria clings to surfaces on medical implants, like a hip replacement for example, they generate a thick jelly-like coating called a biofilm. This barrier blocks out antibiotics and leaves the bacteria free to grow, often resulting in infections that can be difficult to treat.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia recently uncovered a weakness in this defensive barrier, identifying a path whereby the building blocks that form the defensive layer traveled to the outer surface. By "locking the gate," the researchers found the bacteria soon died off. The revelation could lead to a new class of drugs that target the barrier around the bacteria, rather than the bacteria itself.

Not satisfied with just creating chinks in the bacteria's armor, the Queens University researchers developed their solution to penetrate and kill the germs inside. The gel is made from peptides, naturally occurring proteins that form human tissue. These molecules were modified slightly in the laboratory and formed the basis of the antibacterial gel. This gel was shown to break down the biofilm and rapidly kill off Pseudomonas aeruginosa, staphylococci and E.coli.

Lead researcher Dr Garry Laverty from the School of Pharmacy at Queens University will present the findings at the The Science of Medicines conference at the University of Hertfordshire on September 8.

The research was also published in the journal Biomacromolecules.