PHOENIX, Ariz. - Copper was first used to sterilize wounds between 2600 and 2200 B.C., and today, its power to kill bacteria still works.
Researchers are hoping to one day to use copper to create new antibiotics for a strain of pneumonia.
Genie Street has had pneumonia three times. It's left her with asthma and permanent lung damage.
"I was just devastated. I was just so upset, just, I don't know, it just takes all the hope from you. And it's a horrible disease," Street said.
Her doctors told her only one antibiotic will work for her. So she's closely watching research on how copper may help develop new ones.
"With a bacteria that still kills 1.5 million people per year, with 50% of those being under the age of 5, we're trying to find new treatments, and we're doing that through copper," said Michael D. L. Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona.
Streptococcus pneumoniae causes pneumonia, ear infections, meningitis and pink eye. Copper is toxic to the bacteria.
Right now, Johnson is focusing on disrupting the copY protein, which helps bacteria get rid of copper.
"All of a sudden, the bacteria can't cause disruption anymore. Oh, yeah, we have a potential therapeutic target," Johnson said.
He has a compound with copper in vitro studies now that's killed 99.9% of the bacteria in a couple of hours. He's encouraged by that, and so is Street.
"The bad bugs are winning and antibiotics are losing, so if there would be something as simple and as easy as copper, it sounds marvelous to me," Street said.
Especially with antibiotic resistance rising and few new drug options.
Johnson said his team is making faster progress now on figuring out the basic science of how copper works. He believes patients in the future will fight off bacterial infections by getting copper in their regular diet from root vegetables, then adding the drug compound in a cream or a mist. But clinical trials are still a long way off.
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