Researchers in the US have developed a technique that could prove critical in the fight against so-called "superbugs" — virulent and sometimes deadly strains of bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotic drugs. In a study published Wednesday in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), Dr. Vitaly Vodyanoy of Auburn University demonstrates how certain bacteria-killing viruses could be used to identify resistant superbugs, potentially providing a much faster way to treat patients and disinfect hospitals.

Vodyanoy's approach specifically targets drug-resistant Staphylococcus, or "staph" — a pathogen known that typically results in skin irritation. These conditions are usually cured with antibiotics, but stronger staph strains can become deadly upon infecting internal organs or patients with weakened immune systems. In his study, funded through a collaboration with the US Air Force, Dr. Vodyanoy showed that bacteria-killing bacteriophages can be used in conjunction with certain other antibodies to identify antibiotic resistance in staph samples. These bacteriophages change color when applied to drug-resistant samples, providing results in far less time than traditional tests.

Minutes, not hours

"In our method, we can determine bacterial antibiotic resistance in 10-12 minutes, while other methods take hours," Vodyanoy said in a statement released today. Whereas current tests involve complicated purification techniques, Vodyanoy's method could be as simple as a saliva swab.

"We envision a future where clinicians do tests with real blood or saliva samples," the researcher explains. "The virus is completely benign to humans, and we hope to use it to make antimicrobial surfaces and glassware that kill the bacteria."

Vodyanoy's research comes at a critical time for medical researchers and clinicians, who continue to battle a surge in drug-resistant infections. In the US, superbugs are believed to claim more lives than the AIDS virus, with the bacterium MRSA annually accounting for 19,000 deaths alone. Vodyanoy's technique may streamline the identification of these superbugs — thereby stemming their spread — but actually treating them will require an acceleration in the development of new drugs. In a report published last month, the Infectious Diseases Society of America warned that pharmaceutical companies aren't developing enough antibiotics to meet this challenge, noting that the drug pipeline is "on life support."