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IBM Research produces bacteria-killing "ninja polymers”

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July 4, 2012

IBM's 'ninja polymers' are capable of killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Staphy...

IBM's 'ninja polymers' are capable of killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (pictured)

Bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can not only cause potentially lethal infections, but they are also unaffected by commonly-available antibiotics. Even when it comes to bacteria that can be more easily controlled, we are still constantly being warned about the danger of them becoming antibiotic-resistant. Now, however, researchers have discovered a new antiobiotic-free method of killing bacteria including MRSA ... and it’s based on semiconductor technology.

Chemists at IBM Research in Almaden, California had previously been looking for a way of performing microscopic etching on silicon wafers at a far smaller scale than was currently possible. In the course of their research, they identified materials that would produce an electrostatic charge when chained together to form a polymer.

While this polymer worked for its intended purpose, the chemists were curious as to whether it could have other applications. This resulted in the creation of what they've dubbed “ninja polymers.” When their components are introduced to the bloodstream (or water), they self-assemble into biocompatible nanostructures – the ninjas – that are electrostatically drawn to infected cells while not affecting healthy ones. Upon reaching the infected cells, they destroy the bacteria, and then subsequently biodegrade. This reportedly results in no side effects or accumulation in the body.

“The mechanism through which [these polymers] fight bacteria is very different from the way an antibiotic works,” said polymer chemist Jim Hedrick. “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.”

Not only should the ninja polymers be less likely to lead to treatment-resistant bacteria, but because they’re biodegradable, they also shouldn’t build up in the environment after passing through patients’ systems. Besides their applications in medicine, IBM also hopes to see them find use in bacteria-killing products such as cleansers, while also replacing environmentally-harmful antimicrobial agents in things like toothpaste, mouthwash and food packaging.

The company is currently looking into partnerships with other groups, to commercialize the technology.

An overview of the science behind the ninja polymers can be seen in the video below.

Source: IBM Research

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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7 Comments

Science is something eh?

Kevin McKenzie
5th July, 2012 @ 09:22 am PDT

Article does not make it clear whether or not if it specifically targets a bacteria or if it kills them all. I suspect the later. That will be good news for the maker of replacement bacteria.

Page Schorer
5th July, 2012 @ 05:09 pm PDT

How would this affect the ruffage producing bacterial colonies in the human intestines? This is the one major adverse side effect produced by regular antibiotics in large number of people.

pmshah
5th July, 2012 @ 09:49 pm PDT

This would be better if they could specify which bacteria they are targeting. Otherwise it is scary since we need bacteria to live. Bacteria keep fungus in our gut in check, good bacteria on our skin keeps bad bacteria out. I look forward to seeing what they can do and I hope that there is some major regulatory controls on this before it gets out in the wild.

Fabian Rousset
6th July, 2012 @ 05:49 am PDT

Fascinating. I'm looking forward to medical trials.

Michael Burch
7th July, 2012 @ 11:14 am PDT

There is a product called BioShield75 that does this already. It's very inexpensive and trust worthy.

http://www.azpharm.com/products/cleaning_agents or

http://www.azpharm.com/sites/default/files/Organisms.pdf

The second link has a complete list of the bacteria, virus and other bacilli that these products work against.

HSantos
4th October, 2012 @ 11:33 am PDT

"Infected cells?" Bacteria don't infect cells. They're not viruses; they can replicate on their own without having to hijack someone else's cellular machinery.

I presume the author meant to say the polymers distinguish between human cells and bacteria, but that kind of sloppiness makes me wonder what else he got wrong.

Dausuul
26th December, 2013 @ 11:42 am PST
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