Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=185145
Story Retrieval Date: 12/8/2013 8:59:25 PM CST
Photo courtesy of IBM Research
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.