Polymer Hydrogel Zaps Microbes

Research scientists and computer experts have developed a polymer anti-microbial hydrogel that not only can clean surfaces and protect against infection in medical devices, but also be injected into the body to treat tough infections.


The collaborators from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore and IBM claim that the innovation is first-ever biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic anti-microbial gel. Because 90% of it is water, it does not evaporate as quickly or is as toxic as other cleaners, such as bleach. Therefore, it can be included in other applications like creams, coatings for medical devices, or orifice barriers.

“We were driven to develop a more effective therapy against superbugs due to the lethal threat of infection by these rapidly mutating microbes and the lack of novel antimicrobial drugs to fight them,” says Dr. Yi-Yan Yang, group leader of the research team in Singapore. “Using the inexpensive and versatile polymer materials that we have developed jointly with IBM, we can now launch a nimble, multi-pronged attack on drug-resistant biofilms which would help to improve medical and health outcomes.”

Biofilms are an aggregate of cells and bacteria that often collect on surfaces externally or internally. The novelty about the hydrogel is that it can penetrate biofilms and deliver the anti-microbial agents to the source of the infection, reports medGadget. The polymers in the gel work in the following way:

Through the precise tailoring of polymers, researchers designed macromolecules, a molecular structure containing a large number of atoms, which combine water solubility, positive charge, and biodegradability characteristics. When mixed with water and heated to body temperature the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate. This highly desirable capability stems from self-associative interactions that create a ‘molecular zipper’ effect. Analogous to how zipper teeth link together, the short segments on the new polymers also interlock, thickening the water-based solution into re-moldable and compliant hydrogels.

The gel has been playfully nicknamed “ninja polymers” because their positive charge attracts negatively charged microbial membranes. That way, they seek out infected cells, and because of the water content, the gel biodegrades without causing side effects or damaging healthy cells in the treated area.

“This is a fundamentally different approach to fighting drug-resistant biofilms,” says James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist at IBM. “When compared to capabilities of modern-day antibiotics and hydrogels, this new technology carries immense potential. This new technology is appearing at a crucial time as traditional chemical and biological techniques for dealing with drug-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases are increasingly problematic.”

Source: “Breaking the bacterial barrier,” IBM Research
Source: “Polymer Hydrogels Penetrate Microbial Biofilms to Kill Resistant Infections,” medGadget, 1/24/13
Source: “IBM and IBN create antimicrobial hydrogels,” YouTube
Image by Meadohsum.

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