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Research led by Monash University has discovered how to revert antibiotic-resistance in one of the most dangerous superbugs.

The strategy involves using bacteriophages (also known as ‘phages’) which can kill Acinetobacter baumannii, the world’s leading superbug.

Acinetobacter baumannii is responsible for up to 20% of infections in intensive care units, according to the researchers.

Study Lead Dr Fernando Gordillo Altamirano, from the Monash University School of Biological Sciences said Phages are viruses, but could not harm humans.

“They only kill bacteria,” he said.

“We have a large panel of phages that are able to kill antibiotic-resistant A. baumannii,” said Dr Jeremy Barr, senior author of the study and Group Leader at the School of Biological Sciences and part of the Centre to Impact AMR.

“But this superbug is smart, and in the same way it becomes resistant to antibiotics, it also quickly becomes resistant to our phages,” Dr Barr said.

However the study pinpoints how the superbug becomes resistant to attack from phages, and in doing so, the superbug loses its resistance to antibiotics.

“A. baumannii produces a capsule, a viscous and sticky outer layer that protects it and stops the entry of antibiotics,” said Dr Gordillo Altamirano.

“Our phages use that same capsule as their port of entry to infect the bacterial cell.  In an effort to escape from the phages, A. baumannii stops producing its capsule; and that’s when we can hit it with the antibiotics it used to resist.”

The study showed resensitisation to at least seven different antibiotics.

“This greatly expands the resources to treat A. baumannii infections,” Dr Barr said. “We’re making this superbug a lot less scary.”

The researchers said while more research was needed before the therapeutic strategy could be applied in the clinic, the prospects were encouraging.

The research was published this week in Nature Microbiology.