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MRSA nanomedicine

Photo courtesy of IBM Research

IBM's new polymer is attracted to MRSA bacteria cells like a magnet, destroying them while leaving healthy cells completely alone.

IBM discovers 'ninja particles' to destroy MRSA

by Patty Hastings
April 20, 2011

MRSA cell

Photo courtesy of IBM Research.

A MRSA cell is completely destroyed by IBM's new polymer, eliminating the infection.

FDA warns of dangerous and ineffective OTC products for MRSA prevention

Today the FDA issued warning letters to companies manufacturing and marketing products that claim to prevent MRSA infections and are violating federal laws. The FDA does not have evidence showing these products are safe or effective and warns consumers not to buy any over-the-counter hand sanitizers or other products that claim to prevent infection from MRSA, E. coli, Salmonella, flu or other bacteria or viruses. You can report products sold on the internet that make false claims and report side affects from using these products. In general, wash your hands often and ask a health care professional for advice on prevention and questions about product information.

Researchers at IBM in San Jose and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore discovered a new type of polymer that targets and destroys antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The discovery focuses on treatment for potentially lethal Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, also known as MRSA.

Bob Allen, manager of the chemistry department at IBM, calls the polymers “ninja particles” because they recognize only the MRSA cells and destroy them, while completely ignoring healthy cells. The polymers are designed specifically to seek out MRSA cells, like a lock and key set, and not any other type of cell. By poking holes in the wall of the cell membrane, the polymers ruin the structural integrity of the bad cells.

“The guts of the cell just spill out,” Allen said.

While the nanoparticles break down rapidly in body fluids — making them biodegradable — they are also highly stable in water.

The polymer particles, which look like white powder, self-assemble in water. The self-assembly process is a hallmark of nanotechnology and this property is inspiring several potential healthcare innovations.

IBM is currently looking for partners to collaborate on three target applications: an injectable drug, a topical solution for healing wounds and consumer products such as mouthwash or toothpaste. The topical solution would prevent the airborne spread of MRSA bacteria by coating catheters, a tube used to drain the bladder.

“What this offers is a completely different way of beating these superbugs,” Allen said. “It’s a really encouraging complement to traditional medicine.”

Allen said extremely low doses of the polymer are required to eliminate MRSA, a flesh-eating infection that has become increasingly resistant to high doses of antibiotics.

Ian McClaren, a 25-year-old Chicago actor who contracted and recovered from MRSA, is excited for an alternative to antibiotics. After discovering a boil on his behind, he was treated with antibiotics and recovered in about four days.

Antibiotics work their way into a bacterial cell and, if the dose is high enough, kill the cell, while leaving other cells alone. But resistance made the antibiotics that aided McClaren’s recovery increasingly ineffective.

“This is exciting for people dealing with MRSA on a much more serious and life threatening level,” McClaren said.

More than 19,500 people in Illinois contracted MRSA infections in 2009, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Although IBM scientists focused on developing a polymer that destroys bugs such as MRSA, Allen said they’re interested in developing other polymers targeted to treat other illnesses. While the nanomedicine discovery has been about four years in the making, he said the technology is far from ready for commercialization.

IBM dedicates 6 percent of its annual revenue or $6 billion a year to research and development, according to IBM spokeswoman Christina Howell. Their efforts usually focus on improving healthcare data, making this their first contribution to medicine.