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Ninja polymers

Nanomedicine that can destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria

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For decades, bacteria like the stubborn methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have concerned gym goers, hospital patients and staff, and parents of school children. What's particularly worrisome is that MRSA is not contained and killed by commonly available antibiotics. So, the bacteria can produce painful and sometimes deadly results for those who come in contact with it. In the United States alone, MRSA kills more than 19,000 people a year. Fortunately, a team of scientists at IBM Research - Almaden have drawn upon years of expertise in semiconductor technology and material discovery to crack the code for safely destroying the bacteria.

Ninja polymers

The IBM nanomedicine polymer program has looked to existing chip development research done at IBM, which identified specific materials that, when chained together, produced an electrostatic charge that allows microscopic etching on a wafer to be done at a much smaller scale.

This newfound knowledge that characterization of materials could be manipulated at the atomic level to control their movement inspired the team to see what else they could do with these new kinds of polymer structures. They started with MRSA.

The outcome of that experiment was the creation of what are now playfully known as "ninja polymers" - sticky nanostructures that move quickly to target infected cells in the body, destroy the harmful content inside without damaging healthy cells in the area, and then disappear by biodegrading.

"The mechanism through which [these polymers] fight bacteria is very different from the way an antibiotic works," explains Jim Hedrick, a polymer chemist in IBM Research. "They try to mimic what the immune system does: the polymer attaches to the bacteria's membrane and then facilitates destabilization of the membrane. It falls apart, everything falls out and there's little opportunity for it to develop resistance to these polymers."

Creating a hydrogel from the polymers

Through the precise tailoring of the ninja polymers, researchers were able to create macromolecules - molecular structures containing a large number of atoms - which combine water solubility, a positive charge, and biodegradability. When mixed with water and heated to normal body temperature, the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic hydrogel that is easy to manipulate.

When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel's positive charge attracts negatively charged microbial membranes, like stars and planets being pulled into a black hole. However, unlike other antimicrobials that target the internal machinery of bacteria to try to prevent it from replicating, this hydrogel destroys the bacteria by rupturing the bacteria's membrane, rendering it completely unable to regenerate or spread.

The hydrogel is comprised of more than 90 percent water, making it easy to handle and apply to surfaces. It also makes it potentially viable for eventual inclusion in applications like creams or injectable therapeutics for wound healing, implant and catheter coatings, skin infections or even orifice barriers. It is the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, potentially making it an ideal tool to combat serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients.

Fighting fungal infections

The IBM scientists in the nanomedicine polymer program along with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have taken this research a step further and have made a nanomedicine breakthrough in which they converted common plastic materials like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into non-toxic and biocompatible materials designed to specifically target and attack fungal infections. BCC Research reported that the treatment cost for fungal infections was $3 billion worldwide in 2010 and is expected to increase to $6 billion in 2014. In this breakthrough, the researchers identified a novel self-assembly process for broken down PET, the primary material in plastic water bottles, in which 'super' molecules are formed through a hydrogen bond and serve as drug carriers targeting fungal infections in the body. Demonstrating characteristics like electrostatic charge similar to polymers, the molecules are able to break through bacterial membranes and eradicate fungus, then biodegrade in the body naturally. This is important to treat eye infections associated with contact lenses, and bloodstream infections like Candida.

Meet the researchers

  • Bob Allen

    Bob Allen

    Senior Manager, Chemistry/Materials,
    IBM Research - Almaden

  • James Hedrick

    James Hedrick

    Advanced Organic Materials,
    IBM Research - Almaden

  • Dan Coady

    Dan Coady

    Polymer Chemist,
    IBM Research - Almaden

  • Amanda Engler

    Amanda Engler

    Research Staff Member,
    IBM Research - Almaden

  • Spike Narayan

    Spike Narayan

    Director, Science and Technology,
    IBM Research - Almaden

  • Jed Pitera

    Jed Pitera

    Research Staff Member,
    IBM Research - Almaden