Treating patients with a heavy metal alongside antibiotics could be the solution to the growing resistance crisis, a study suggests.
Patients with a life-threatening lung infection who were given IV gallium along with standard antibiotics saw their symptoms improve.
And the University of Washington team said the combination caused no serious side effects.
Lab tests also showed the deadly bacteria were slow to develop resistance to the heavy metal – commonly used in electrical circuits and LED lights.
Superbugs are thought to take-up the metal, which then hijacks the metabolism and nutrition that bacteria need to survive.
Experts have previously warned antibiotic resistance poses ‘as big a risk as terrorism’.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the resistance crisis ‘has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.’
Mucus samples were taken from patients who were infected with the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa for the three-part study.
This can lead to life-threatening pneumonia or urinary tract infections and is common in patients who have been hospitalised for more than a week.
The mucus was exposed to small amounts of gallium, along with the commonly prescribed antibiotics colistin and tobramycin, in the lab.
Exposure to the metal killed off the bacteria, with P. aeruginosa also being slow to develop resistance to the novel treatment.
The researchers, led by Dr Christopher Goss, then intravenously administered gallium to mice with the same infection.
This caused the bacteria’s numbers to reduce and the rodents to live for longer.
After being shown to be safe and effective, gallium was finally tested in 20 patients with either cystic fibrosis or chronic P.aeruginosa lung infections.
After 28 days, the treatment improved the patients’ lung function without causing any severe complications.
Gallium is thought to hijack bacteria’s metabolism due to it being structurally similar to iron, which is critical for their survival.
This allows the metal to act as a ‘Trojan horse’ and sneak into pathogens.
The scientists plan to investigate the metal’s safety and effectiveness, when used alongside antibiotics, in future studies.
Before the first antibiotic Penicillin was discovered by the Scottish microbiologist Alexander Fleming in 1928, metals such as copper and mercury were often used to treat infections.
This is due to them being toxic to many bacteria.
Fleming’s discovery allowed doctors to treat and cure infected patients, saving millions of lives.
Yet, less than a century after Fleming’s discovery, there are precious few antibiotics left and many superbugs are already resistant to all of them.
Figures suggest up to 50,000 people die each year due to antibiotic-resistant infections in Europe and the US alone.
Globally, at least 700,000 people pass away annually due to antibiotic-resistance complications from illnesses such as malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis.
This comes after research released last month suggested cows may be the cause of the next health epidemic.
The bovine animal is a reservoir for antibiotic-resistant superbugs, such as the notoriously difficult-to-treat MRSA, which are a serious threat to human health, according to a ground-breaking study by the University of Helsinki.