IBM has developed a small, biodegradable polymer that acts like the body’s immune system to destroy bacteria. The development from an unpredictable source could be the key to controlling the so-called superbug staph bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Because antibiotics are pervasive and nearly omnipresent, scientists have been warning for decades that bacteria will eventually develop resistance to the drugs. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, a strand of staph bacteria, are a superbug that scientists have been concerned about. Hospitals frequently have outbreaks of the bacteria, and it seems the bacteria find new ways of spreading.
What can be done? Because IBM developed chemicals and nanotechnology to shrink computer chips, the company transferred that research into creating a new type of polymer that has multiple potential applications, writes Amy Westervelt for Forbes.
James Hedrick, a polymer chemist in the Advanced Organic Materials division of IBM Research, says:
The mechanism through which [the polymers] fight bacteria is very different from the way an antibiotic works. 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.
Antibiotics tend to kill different bacteria in different ways. One antibiotic might inhibit a bacterium’s ability to turn glucose into energy, thereby starving it, or its ability to build its cell wall, thereby preventing it from reproducing. On the other hand, IBM’s biodegradable polymer material, just a few atoms in size, selectively alters bacteria so that they don’t regenerate and build a resistance to drugs.
Part of the reason why there are superbugs is because of the wide use of antimicrobial agents; there are antimicrobials even in socks and toothpaste. Hedrick says:
Think about toothpaste and mouthwash — we spit it into sink, it goes into the water supply, that in turn is used on agricultural crops, or it’s in the streams and oceans, and it still has these antimicrobials. Our polymers do their job and then go away.
The polymers can be used in many products, from hydrogels and solutions, to coatings for hospital equipment and even replacement joints (infections from contaminated hip, knee, and other joint replacements have been on the rise recently).
“In terms of application, there’s a broad spectrum of possibilities, from cosmetics to wound healing,” Hedrick notes. “Some 30 to 40 percent of the population has MRSA colonies in their nostrils. Imagine the use of a gel like this for treatment.”
We’re also looking at drug and gene delivery. Most therapeutics are very water insoluble, so we’re looking for ways to get them to be soluble and to deliver them directly to a tumor. Right now, chemotherapy is not discerning in terms of where the drug goes — that’s why chemo patients have to deal with their hair falling out, their feet bleeding, and various other unpleasant side effects. We’re trying to solubilize chemo and then deliver it with efficacy where we want it.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.