Writing in the journal ACS Nano, the Sheffield University researchers described how they studied the structures of anticancer drugs based on ruthenium, a rare metal.
Jim Thomas, professor of bio-inorganic chemistry at Sheffield University, said that the team tweaked the structure of the metal-based compounds to see if they had antimicrobial properties.
“We played about with the structure and tried to make it so it would be preferentially taken up by the bacteria. We ended up with something that was toxic towards bacteria, particularly gram negative bacteria, and not toxic towards humans,” he said.
The researchers tested the compound on wax moth larvae, which have a primitive immune system and are particularly useful to study because they become darker when they are ill.
The compound is luminescent so it glows when exposed to light.
“This means the uptake and effect on bacteria can be followed by the advanced microscope techniques available [here]. This breakthrough could lead to vital new treatments to life-threatening superbugs and the growing risk posed by antimicrobial resistance,” said Prof Thomas.
The team now has to look at how the compound fares in mammals before embarking on human studies.
This is not the first time that researchers have used metals to develop antimicrobials. Silver’s antimicrobial properties have long been recognised and a team in Australia developed a topical antibiotic treatment in the 1950s, whose structure is related to the compound developed by the Sheffield team.