After three years of research, a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne may have discovered a way to kill superbugs without the use of antibiotics.

Shu Lam believes that she has found the key to averting a health crisis so severe that the United Nations recently declared it a "fundamental threat" to global health.

Shu Lam

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs kill about 170,000 people a year and, according to a British study, are estimated to kill up to 10 million people a year by 2050 and cost the world economy $100 trillion.

"If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told The Guardian. "It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy."

In what is being hailed by scientists in the field as "a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine," Lam and her team developed a star-shaped peptide polymer that targets the resistant superbugs, rips apart their cell walls and kills them.

"These star polymers screw up the way bacteria survives," Lam told VICE. "Bacteria need to divide and grow but when our star is attached to the membrane it interferes with these processes. This puts a lot of stress on the bacteria and it initiates a process to kill itself from stress."

A bacterium cell before (left) and after being treated by the star-shaped polymers. University of Melbourne

Lam told The Telegraph the polymers have been effective in treating mice infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and are relatively non-toxic to the healthy cells in the body. The reduction in toxicity is because of the larger size of the polymers which make them too big to enter healthy cells.

Lam's findings were recently published in the Nature Microbiology journal and while the results are promising in the lab and on mice, she said there is still a long way to go.

"We still need to do a lot of studies and a lot of tests—for example, to see whether these polymers have any side effects on our bodies," she explained to Vice. "We need a lot of detailed assessments like that, [but] they could hopefully be implemented in the near future."

Professor Greg Qiao, her Ph.D. supervisor, told The Telegraph they will need at least five more years to fully develop her project unless millions of dollars are invested into speeding up the process.

However, "The really good news about this is that, at the moment, if you have a superbug and you run out of antibiotics, there's not much you can do. At least you can do something now," he said.

So what would the star polymer treatment look like in the future? As Lam explained in an interview with VICE:

"The quickest way to make this available to the public is through topical application, simply because you go through less procedures as opposed to ingesting these molecules into the body. So when you have a wound or a bacterial infection on the wound then you [generally] apply some sort of antibacterial cream.

"The star polymers could potentially become one of the anti-bacterial ingredients in this cream. Ultimately, we hope that what we're discovering here could replace antibiotics. In other words, we also hope that we will be able to inject this into the body to treat serious infections, or even to disperse it in the form of a pill which patients can take, just like somebody would take an antibiotic."