MRSA meets its match

With new polymers, IBM and Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology take aim against antibiotic-resistant pathogens

Jeffrey Bouley
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SAN JOSE, Calif.—Believing that employing new molecular structures could provide a better means to fight infectious diseases than using conventional antibiotics, researchers from IBM and Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) recently announced a nanomedicine breakthrough using polymers that seem able to physically detect and destroy troubling diseases such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The two parties say these nanostructures—discovered by applying principles used in semiconductor manufacturing—are "physically attracted to infected cells like a magnet, allowing them to selectively eradicate difficult-to-treat bacteria without destroying healthy cells around them."

Therein lies the twofold challenge researchers have faced in fighting infections like MRSA. First, drug resistance occurs in part because current treatments leave the cell walls and membranes of microorganisms largely undamaged, allowing them to more easily evolve to resist antibiotics. Second, the high doses of antibiotics needed to kill such infections often indiscriminately destroy healthy red blood cells in addition to contaminated ones.

The antimicrobial agents developed by IBM Research and IBN are designed to be more targeted to infected areas while also allowing for systemic delivery. Once the polymers in these agents come into contact with water in or on the body, IBM says they "self-assemble into a new polymer structure that is designed to target bacteria membranes based on electrostatic interaction and break through their cell membranes and walls. The physical nature of this action prevents bacteria from developing resistance to these nanoparticles."

Because of the affinity for the electric charge naturally found in MRSA cells or other pathogens, the new polymer structures reportedly are attracted only to the infected areas while preserving the healthy red blood cells that help transport oxygen throughout the body to aid in fighting bacteria.

Also, IBM and IBN note, these new materials are biodegradable and should be naturally eliminated from the body rather than accumulating in organs.

The technology's genesis goes back more than five years to when one of IBM's leading researchers, Dr. James Hedrick at IBM Research–Almaden, became "extremely interested in leveraging some of the new polymerization chemistry he had helped to invent into materials for what we now call nanomedicine," says Bob Allen, senior manager of the Advanced Materials Chemistry Department at IBM Research–Almaden.

Then Hendrick met Dr. Yiyan Yang, group leader at IBN, at a conference and she brought her skills in formulating the kinds of materials with which he was working. Between them, they were able to tailor the chemicals with a strong sense of how structure impacts function, and to, as Hendrick noted in the news release about the IBM and IBN collaboration, "leverage decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies to create an entirely new drug delivery mechanism that could make them more specific and effective."

"It was a really complementary set of skills and turned out to be a very strategic way for us to get into these newer markets like the life sciences and healthcare," Allen tells ddn.

Presuming these biodegradable polymer nanostructures make it to the commercial manufacturing stage, they could be injected directly into the body or applied topically to the skin. In fact, IBM envisions potential for treating skin infections through consumer products like deodorant, soap, hand sanitizer, table wipes and preservatives, as well as using the nanostructures clinically to help heal wounds, lung infections and more.

Although he declines to go into specifics about any concrete development and commercialization plans or potential commercial partners, he says that broadly speaking, there are three major areas of interest, which correspond to likely short-term, medium-term and long-term opportunities.

In the short term, topical consumer products would be the main goal, and Allen says that IBM has been in touch with potential partners about that possibility already.

"The model there would be to use a third-party partner collaboration to commercialize anything," he notes.

The medium-term market possibilities would likely be things like wound healing materials and coatings for catheters or stents. Looking to the long-term, IBM would probably be considering injectable compounds or other methods of clinical treatment.

"Using our novel nanostructures, we can offer a viable therapeutic solution for the treatment of MRSA and other infectious diseases. This exciting discovery effectively integrates our capabilities in biomedical sciences and materials research to address key issues in conventional drug delivery," says IBN's Yang.

"We're really interested in looking at as many uses for this polymer as we can," Allen notes. "In the research paper we recently published in Nature Chemistry, we emphasize that it's really strong against MRSA, so we're looking at a variety of gram-positive and gram-negative microbes to see just how effective this polymer is, what its efficiency is and how selective it is relative to the pathogens vs. the good guys like healthy red blood cells."


Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology

IBM Research

Nature Chemistry 

Jeffrey Bouley

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