Urinary tract infections are considered annoying but relatively harmless ailments. However, more than 6,000 people die of urinary tract infections in Europe each year. Fatal UTIs are most often a consequence of a severe bacterial infection acquired during hospital treatment, originating from long-term catheter use. Superbacteria hiding in hospitals are resistant to commonly used antibiotics. However, natural plants can have surprising hidden properties. Researchers at the University of Oulu (UniOulu) found small fragments of an antibacterial protein, also known as peptides, in a microbe living in crowberry. The peptides are powerful enough to defeat superbugs. Peptide-coated catheters can be used to prevent nasty urinary tract infections. Chain Antimicrobials Oy is a spinoff founded on the basis of this innovation, and it is targeting the global market.

Dr Tejesvi Mysore, CEO at the Chain Antimicrobials Oy, explained that in long-term use, a biofilm is formed on the surface of a urinary catheter; this refers to microbial growth that binds tightly with the material. Biofilms are a substantial problem in medicine because they contribute to some 80% of all human infections. Bacteria growing in biofilms are 10 to 1,000 times more resistant to factors such as antibiotics compared to freely growing bacteria, and for this reason, it is difficult to destroy biofilms.

Researchers are developing a peptide coating for catheters to prevent biofilm formation. The same technology can be subsequently used for other medical instruments where biofilm formation is a problem, such as intubation tubes and various kinds of implants. Based on the laboratory studies, the peptide coating reduces bacterial attachment on the catheter by 30 to 70% compared to a regular catheter. Antibiotic-resistant superbacteria are a threat to health all over the world. All available means are required in the fight against hospital-acquired bacteria such as MRSA and CPE.

Docents Anna Maria Pirttilä and Tejesvi Mysore from the Department of Ecology and Genetics at the University of Oulu, were involved in the development of antimicrobial peptides. Anna Maria Pirttilä explained that it all started with an EU project back in 2008 when researchers searched for medicinally efficient compounds in local plant species using traditional screening methods. The intention was also to study and develop new screening methods.

While developing a new screening method scientists actually found these peptides in crowberry! Researchers emphasized that this is a good example of the importance of basic research: without a high standard of basic research, new innovations are not born. Dr Mysore said that the team studied several different species of plants; not only crowberry but also heather and marsh tea. However, the most promising compounds were found in crowberry.

Dr Tejesvi explained that there is indeed a microbiome inside the leaves and stem of crowberry. Researchers separated the DNAs of crowberry and the contained microbes, in this case, bacteria, from each other by a combination of various basic methods, The team tested the activity of isolated genes and the ability of the induced compounds to kill bacteria, and there they found it: a single antibacterial protein. Docent Anna Maria Pirttilä said scientists were dealing only with genes at this stage, the host plant was no longer needed after the initial steps.

The protein is quite large and difficult to commercialise. Researchers cut the protein into smaller pieces and tested their antibacterial ability. They found that an amino acid chain or peptide of 11 to 16 amino acids can kill microbes. Chain Antimicrobials Oy is currently involved in product testing that is estimated to take four more years before developers get approval and can bring products to the market. Tejesvi Mysore said the team is now conducting pre-clinical trials, after which they can start clinical testing.

In addition, Dr Mysore emphasized that the company is not selling a product but a technology. Companies manufacturing medical instruments will buy this technology. Even though the development of biomedical innovation is not as lengthy and regulated as the testing of pharmaceuticals, it will still take years and require a heap of money. The good news was received in September 2018 when Chain Antimicrobials got €500,000 of funding from Business Finland and venture capital investor Butterfly Ventures.