Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an increasingly big problem for global health. They kill in excess of 23,000 people in the US every year, with their ability to rapidly develop an immunity to antibiotic treatments making them extremely difficult to eradicate. Now, new research being conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder has found that tiny light-activated particles known as quantum dots might be useful in tackling the infections.

Quantum dots resemble the semiconductors found in consumer electronics, but on a nanoscale, measuring some 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. By working on such a tiny scale, the researchers are able prompt specific interactions on a cellular level that only target the dangerous bacteria.

The new study isn't the first time that researchers have looked to tackle antibiotic resistant bacteria on such a small scale. Previous work has shown that metal nanoparticles – those made from silver and gold – can be used to attack such infections, but there's a big downside to the treatment, with the nanoparticles also harming surrounding cells.

The quantum dots don't suffer from the same issue. Because they're activated by light, researchers are able to tailor the particles to attack only the desired cells by altering the wavelength of the light. Once the light source is removed, the dots become inactive.

The team believes that the breakthrough will allow for the development of non-harmful clinical treatments that use nanoparticles to combat the resistant bacteria. The work is off to a good start, with the researchers testing the method on lab-grown cultures, where it was found to successfully kill 92 percent of drug-resistant bacterial cells.

"Antibiotics are not just a baseline treatment for bacterial infections, but HIV and cancer as well," said senior study author Anushree Chatterjee. "Failure to develop effective treatments for drug-resistant strains is not an option, and that's what this technology moves closer to solving."

The findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Materials.