Researchers working to weaponize copper against bacteria

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Copper was first used to sterilize wounds between 2600 and 2200 B.C. Today, its power to kill bacteria still works.

Researchers are hoping to one day 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," she said. "I was just so upset, just, I don't know, it just takes all the hope from you. And it's a horrible disease."

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," University of Arizona assistant professor of immunobiology Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson said.

Streptococcus pneumoniae causes pneumonia, ear infections, meningitis and pink eye. Copper is toxic to the bacteria.

Right now, Johnson is focusing on disrupting the cop-Y 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," he said.

He has a compound with copper in vitro studies now that has 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," she said.

Especially with antibiotic resistance rising and few new drug options.

Johnson says 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.

REPORT: MB #4623

BACKGROUND: Streptococcus pneumoniae are lancet-shaped, gram-positive, facultative anaerobic bacteria with over 90 known serotypes. Most S. pneumoniae serotypes can cause disease, but only a minority of serotypes produce the majority of pneumococcal infections. Conditions that increase the risk of invasive pneumococcal disease among adults include: decreased immune function from disease or drugs, functional or anatomic asplenia, chronic heart, lung (including asthma), liver, or renal disease, cigarette smoking, and cerebrospinal fluid leak or a cochlear implant. Children with functional or anatomic asplenia, particularly those with sickle cell disease, and children with HIV infection are at very high risk for invasive disease. Some studies report rates more than 50 times higher than those among children of the same age without these conditions. (Source:

PNEUMONIA: Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be mild or so severe that it may require hospitalization. It happens if an infection causes the air sacs of the lungs to fill up with fluid or pus. That can make it hard to breathe in enough oxygen to reach the bloodstream. Anyone can get this lung infection. Infants younger than age 2 and people over age 65 have the highest odds. If it is a bacterial pneumonia, you'll get antibiotics. But if it is viral pneumonia, antibiotics won't help. Treatment includes rest and drinking a lot of fluids. (Source:

COPPER: Michael D. L. Johnson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona is adding a copper synergizing compound to see if he can use copper as an antimicrobial. "We have cells in our body called macrophages. They do something called nutritional immunity, where they take some of these necessary metals that the bacteria need, things like iron, things that you'll see at the bottom of your vitamins, that are metals. But it also bombards it with things like copper. So. our body takes advantage of that still to this day," he says. Johnson hopes this may aid with a variety of ailments. "We look at streptococcus pneumonia, which is a causative agent of a lot of things like pneumonia, it can go into the bloodstream for sepsis. It's also really big with ear infections, so a lot of the ear infections that kids get is actually bacterial through streptococcus pneumonia." (Source: Michael D. L. Johnson, PhD)