Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Antibiotics Can’t Kill the Staph Superbug, But Plastic Can

p>We usually would not think of IBM scientists developing new polymers, but they have developed one that finds and kills dangerous bacteria that are immune to conventional antibiotics. Plastics have long been used to create numerous medical devices and other healthcare equipment, but this polymer actually is a medicine, a nanomedicine.

There have been several science fiction movies where a superbug that can’t be killed by antibiotics gets loose and infects large numbers of people. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is that type of bug—and unfortunately it is frightening real. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have reported that in 2005 MRSA was responsible for more than 94,000 life-threatening infections and associated with almost 19,000 deaths in the United States. It is still out there.

MRSA bacteria can be killed by new polymer

Often fatal MRSA bacteria are immune to antibiotics, but a new polymer created by IBM researchers kills them. It’s the Plastic Ninja.

IBM scientists, working with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of Singapore, have used technology to manipulate material at the atomic level that they developed for semiconductor manufacturing to create a nanomedicine innovation that attacks and kills MRSA bacteria. It is fundamentally different from an antibiotic.

When the polymeric antimicrobial agents developed by IBM and IBN contact water in or on a body, they self-assemble into a new polymer structure that uses electrostatic interaction to target the bacteria. In effect, the polymer is magnetically attracted to the bacteria. When it finds the bug, it physically attaches to its outer membrane and breaks the cell wall, destroying the bacteria.

Having acquired the name “Plastic Ninjas” for their targeted killing ability, the polymers have been 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. A full research paper was published online in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Chemistry in April 2011.

Among the leading features of the Plastic Ninjas is that they are attracted only to the infected areas. Even as it goes about totally destroying the harmful bacteria, the polymer material does not affect nearby healthy cells. Further, the polymers are biodegradable: They do their job and then are gone, unlike some  antibiotics that can persist in the environment.

The Plastic Ninja’s best feature may be that

it eradicates the bacteria physically. That means an infectious microbe like MRSA cannot develop immunity to the polymer as it has done with antibiotics. When MRSE bacteria first encounter a Plastic Ninja, their time is already up.

IBM envisions other uses for this ninja polymer outside the body. For example, it could help prevent spoilage in the food and cosmetic sectors and create sterile surfaces in hospitals

and food service areas.

IBM researchers unleash plastic ‘ninjas’ to fight deadly bacteria

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