'Intelligent slime' may hold key to beating superbug
AN Edinburgh student may have discovered a way to beat deadly bacterial infections such as the MRSA superbug - using "clever" slime.
Heriot-Watt University graduate Charlotte Hamilton’s slippery theory has seen her shortlisted for the UK’s science and technology Oscars.
The 21-year-old former Tynecastle High pupil believes she has found a way to trick bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics into weakening their first line of defence.
Ms Hamilton, who is currently working in a city shoe outlet after completing her studies, reckons her findings could one day help to tackle MRSA and other bacterial infections.
Ms Hamilton was studying a protective slime surrounding bacteria, known as "biofilm", which prevents antibiotics from reaching the organism. Crucially, she discovered that bacteria are able to release compounds which disperse the slime of rival bacteria.
By harnessing this technique, Ms Hamilton believes their defences can be weakened so that they are more vulnerable to antibiotics, making it easier to wipe out infections.
Ms Hamilton, from Murrayfield, said: "The results are very significant because they suggest a new strategy for the treatment of infection.
"I have not discovered a new antibiotic but this is a novel way of dispersing biofilms - which could effectively weaken a bacteria’s integrity. Bacteria are constantly finding new ways to become resistant to antibiotics so this could be used as a therapy.
"It’s not a miracle but it’s pretty good. This could also be used as an alternative to antibiotics or used as a combined therapy with antibiotics."
She added: "It’s not like slime is going to take over the planet but it’s remarkably clever in the way it knows to disperse in the presence of bacterial competition."
Ms Hamilton, who has been nominated as Best Biology or Biotechnology Student in the UK, believes the discovery could be used to fight bacterial infections on devices such as artificial heart valves and catheters within the human body, which are difficult to treat.
The MRSA superbug and similar infections are estimated to kill at least 5000 people annually across the UK.
Ms Hamilton’s discovery could also lead to the development of new paints that could be used under water without being harmful to wildlife. Her project had a budget of only 100.
Following some time off after obtaining a first-class honours degree, Ms Hamilton hopes to soon find a post as a cancer researcher.
Dr Grant Burgess, a reader in marine biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University’s School of Life Sciences, described Ms Hamilton as an excellent "ambassador" for biology. He added: "Charlotte is extremely hard-working and achieved a great deal in her short eight-week project.
"She performed as well as an experienced PhD student and frequently surprised me with her depth of knowledge.
"Charlotte also showed the key qualities of a top-rate research scientist. When faced with a problem or a technical hurdle she would not rest until it had been overcome.
"She is creative, very motivated in her goals and has a passion for science and for understanding subjects of medical relevance that is rarely seen."
Ms Hamilton will compete against counterparts from the University of West England and Bristol University for the honour - which is to be judged by experts from the Institute of Biology.
Winners of the annual Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Awards will be announced at a gala dinner next month featuring an audience including leading academics, senior industry executives, top politicians and media figures.
The event will be held at London’s Great Hall of Guildhall on September 20.
Ms Hamilton admitted the she found news of the nomination "pretty overwhelming".
She added: "It’s really too much to take in. It has been a dream come true. It will be my first time to London so I’m really looking forward to it."
The SET Awards provide a showcase for educational excellence by recognising the exceptional achievements of students and universities.
It features cash prizes of up to 2000 and is regarded as Britain’s most prestigious award for science and engineering undergraduates.
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