IBM uses chip engineering to beat MRSA

IBM Corp. and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have shown that nanometer-scale polymeric chemicals can seek out and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

More people in the U.S. now die from the mostly hospital-acquired staph infection MRSA than from AIDS, according to a new report from the CDC. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was responsible for an estimated 94,000 life-threatening infections and 18,650 deaths in 2005, CDC researchers report in the Oct. 17 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The MRSA breakthrough applies self-organizing principles used in semiconductor engineering, IBM said. The polymers are biodegradable nanostructures that are physically attracted to the infected cells so that they selectively in application and do not damage healthy cells. The nanostructures also physically break through the bacterial cell wall and thereby prevent bacteria from evolving and developing resistance.

The polymers are designed so that they become active only when they come into contact with water or are introduced into the body. They then self-assemble into a new structure that attacks bacterial membranes based on electrostatic interaction. On this basis it only attacks the bacterial cells and the polymer structures are biodegradable, so that they are eliminated from the body over time and do not accumulate in organs.

The antimicrobial polymers, created by IBM Research and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, were tested against clinical microbial samples by the State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, First Affiliated Hospital, College of Medicine and Zhejiang University in China. The full research paper was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Chemistry.

“The number of bacteria in the palm of a hand outnumbers the entire human population,” said James Hedrick, advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Research – Almaden, in a statement. “With this discovery we’ve been able to leverage decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies to create an entirely new delivery mechanism that could make drugs more specific and effective.”

If commercially manufactured, these biodegradable nanostructures could be injected directly into the body or applied topically to the skin, treating skin infections through consumer products such as: deodorant, soap, hand sanitizer, table wipes and preservatives, as well as be used to help heal wounds, tuberculosis and lung infections.

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