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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
IBM's Plastic 'Ninja Polymers' Could Be MRSA Bacteria's First Worthy Opponents

A team of research scientists at IBM and Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have drawn upon years of expertise in semiconductor technology and material discovery to crack the code for safely destroying the antibiotic-resistant and sometimes-deadly superbug MRSA.

IBM says the researchers have made a nanomedicine breakthrough by converting common plastic materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into non-toxic and biocompatible materials designed to specifically target and attack fungal infections.

The stubborn methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been feared by gym goers, hospital patients and staff, and parents of schoolchildren for decades. In the U.S. alone, MRSA kills more than 19,000 people a year. Enter IBM’s new “ninja polymers,” which could finally defeat the formidable bacteria.

IBM says its nanomedicine polymer program looked to the company’s chip development research, which revealed that certain materials could be manipulated at the atomic level to control their movement, which in turn inspired the researchers to see what else could be done with these new kinds of polymer structures. So they started with MRSA.

The result: The creation of what are now playfully known as "ninja polymers" — sticky nanostructures that quickly target infected cells in the body, destroy the harmful content inside without damaging healthy cells in the area, and then biodegrade.

By tailoring the ninja polymers, the researchers were able to create macromolecules — molecular structures containing a large number of atoms — that combine water solubility, a positive charge and biodegradability. When mixed with water and heated to normal body temperature, the polymers self-assemble and form a synthetic hydrogel that is easy to manipulate.

When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel's positive charge attracts negatively charged microbial membranes, much like stars and planets being pulled into a black hole, IBM says. But unlike other antimicrobials that try to destroy bacteria by preventing it from replicating, the hydrogel ruptures the bacteria's membrane, rendering it completely unable to regenerate or spread.

The hydrogel is over 90 percent water, making it easy to handle and apply to surfaces, and makes it potentially viable for eventual inclusion in applications such as creams or injectable therapeutics. It is biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, and could be an ideal tool to combat a variety of serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients.

According to Dr Yi Yan Yang, group leader at IBN, “The ability of our molecules to self-assemble into nanofibers is important because unlike discrete molecules, fibers increase the local concentration of cationic charges and compound mass. The result is a highly efficient killing strategy that causes minimal damage or toxicity to surrounding healthy cells.”

With characteristics such as electrostatic charge similar to polymers, the molecules can break through bacterial membranes and eradicate fungus, then biodegrade in the body naturally. This is important to treat eye infections associated with contact lenses, and bloodstream infections such as Candida: According to IBN, preliminary lab trials found that the polymer treatment eradicated more than 99.9% of Candida fungi cells after one hour of incubation — and no signs of drug resistance were noted after 11 treatments.

If proven viable for widespread use, ninja polymers could help save more than lives: BCC Research reported that the treatment cost for fungal infections was $3 billion worldwide in 2010 and is expected to increase to $6 billion in 2014.

In addition to this potential medical breakthrough, IBM last month unveiled its eighth annual "IBM 5 in 5" (#ibm5in5) — a list of innovations that have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years, and the tech company’s role in making them a reality.

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