Outsmarting Superbugs


The evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is one of the biggest threats facing medicine today. Modern antibiotics – long the key to fighting deadly infections – have little effect on the new resistant strains of bacteria that commonly infect hospital patients who are in a weakened state. Now a Cape Breton University scientist is working with a Halifax-based drug company to develop one possible solution to this looming problem.

Matthias Bierenstiel is an associate professor of inorganic chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Cape Breton University. Much of his research involves studying and synthesizing new transition metal complexes – complex molecules that contain two metal centres. Some of the complexes he studies have been found to possess antimicrobial properties that are capable of switching off a bacterium’s resistance to antibiotics.

Bierenstiel is helping to develop a way of synthesizing polymer molecules that can be used to fight drug resistant bacteria. “My area of expertise is in the binding of the iron to the polymer,” he says.

There are two fundamental questions he’s trying to answer. The first is how these polymers can be manufactured to use as pharmaceuticals. The other is how exactly does the process work. “One of the questions we’re trying to answer is how the polymer wraps around iron molecules. The ACENET network gives us the computer power to model it to examine ways that it binds together. We can also use ACENET to make the next generation of compounds better.”

Bierenstiel is working with Chelation Partners, a Halifax-based development stage company. that is using his research in the quest to develop a new platform of chemically synthesized chelating compounds that withhold iron from pathogens. “ACENET allows us to model the reactions without the need to go into the lab. Some runs take several weeks. Even with a supercomputer it takes a considerable amount of time.”

Bierenstiel first used the ACENET system six years ago. He turned to it again last year when he began working with Chelation Partners. “My interest is in making a compound and putting it in someone else’s hands to develop and distribute,” says Bierenstiel.

Bierenstiel’s research has attracted more than $2 million in equipment and operating funds over the past six years, including from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Springboard Atlantic, Mitacs, Innovacorp and the National Research Council Canada (NRC).