One of the problems with antibiotics is the fact that new ones have to constantly be produced, in order to kill resistant strains of bacteria. When it comes to treating infected wounds, however, antibiotics may be getting some help – in the form of microscopic polystyrene beads.

Initially developed several years ago, the microbeads are coated with a protein called multivalent adhesion molecule 7, which many harmful bacteria use to bind to host cells. In studies performed on lab rats at the time, it was shown that beads applied to burn wounds were effective at preventing infection, as they outcompeted bacteria for binding sites.

Now, a University of Birmingham team led by postdoctoral research fellow Paul Roberts has developed a mathematical model to see how effective the microbeads would be at treating rat burns infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a bacterium that frequently infects human burn wounds.

After applying that model to a computer program that was used to simulate various infection scenarios, it was determined that while microbead treatment likely wouldn't make much of a difference on its own, it could be very effective if combined with a technique known as debridement – this involves the removal of necrotic tissue, and is already commonly performed on burn wounds.

"Our results also suggest that these microbeads could be used to complement traditional antibiotic drugs," says Roberts. "In theory, this would allow us to eliminate bacterial infections more rapidly, reducing the quantity of antibiotics used and hence lessening the chances that bacteria will develop resistance to them."

Lab tests and the development of more complex models are now being planned, in order to establish the optimum combination of microbead treatment, debridement and antibiotics.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.