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Shu Lam

The 25-year-old Malaysian Chinese who may have just solved the superbug problem

Vivian Lin

She is all of 25 and may have already made one of the most significant discoveries of our time.

Scientists in Australia this week took a quantum leap in the war on superbugs, developing a chain of star-shaped polymer molecules that can destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria without hurting healthy cells. And the star of the show is 25-year-old Shu Lam, a Malaysian-Chinese PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, who has developed the polymer chain in the course of her thesis research in antimicrobials and superbugs.

A polymer is a large molecule composed of several similar subunits bonded together. Polymers can be used to attack superbugs physically, unlike antibiotics that attempt to kill these bugs chemically and killing nearby healthy cells in the process.

“I’ve spent the past three and a half years researching polymers and looking at how they can be used to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria,” or superbugs, she told This Week in Asia, adding the star-shaped polymers work by tearing into the surface membrane of the bacteria, triggering the cell to kill itself.

Using the polymer, bacteria doesn’t exhibit the same resistance as it does to antibiotics and can still be killed after multiple generations of mutations, Lam’s PhD supervisor Professor Greg Qiao said.

“The components of the polymer can also be tweaked differently depending on the application,” said Qiao, who also leads the Polymer Science Group and is a professor of macromolecular chemistry and engineering at the university’s School of Engineering.

The World Health Organisation lists superbugs as a key threat to human health, having adapted to become resistant to all forms of antibiotics. The UN General Assembly has called a meeting this month to address the superbug explosion.

Prof Greg Qiao

“We think superbugs will cause around 10 million deaths per year by 2050,” Lam said.

Lam’s breakthrough with Qiao on polymers has been published in the research journal Nature Microbiology.

However, Lam’s research is still in early stages, according to Qiao, and much more work needs to be done to verify the best formula and structure, as well as to reduce the dosage and further test toxicity before the substance is completely safe for the human cell.

“Even with all the money in the world, it would take at least five years to go to the first human test, because many resources and work are needed for its commercialisation,” he said.

Lam is to submit her PhD thesis in two months and says she hopes to continue to work in research, rather than opt for medical training like her father, who is a paediatrician.

“I think my career will be mainly focused on research in the medical field,” said Lam, who has already begun pursuing her passion in polymer research during her four-year undergraduate degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

“As an undergraduate, she would come to our group for summer work when she had time,” Qiao recalled of Lam.

These days when Lam finds the rare downtime between researching polymers, she likes to watch TV and explore the city. “Being in Melbourne, I have developed an interest in food and really like exploring new cafes and brunch places, so I spend a lot of time trying new food and walking around when I’m not working,” Lam said.

Lam moved to Australia for her foundation studies after finishing primary and secondary school in Malaysia, and is likely stay on in Australia after graduating at the end of the year.

“My main preference would be to continue to stay in research, but I am also looking at career fields outside of polymer research,” she said. “This research is going in different directions,” said Qiao. “One is killing the bug, the other is treating cancer.”

Her group is also examining the use of polymers as a drug carrier for cancer patients as well as the treatment of other diseases.

A key project at the moment is the synthetic transplant of cornea in the eye, which involves the use of polymers grown from the patient’s own cells in the lab to replace the damaged cornea.

The operation has already been tested multiple times successfully on sheep, and Qiao hopes to begin the first human trials in Melbourne within two years, working with the Melbourne Eye and Ear Hospital.