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