IBM Creates New Antimicrobial Hydrogel to Fight Superbugs and Drug-Resistant Biofilms

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-01-25

IBM Creates New Antimicrobial Hydrogel to Fight Superbugs and Drug-Resistant Biofilms

IBM researchers have come up with a new antimicrobial hydrogel to fight drug-resistant superbugs and biofilms.

Big Blue made its breakthrough as superbugs and drug-resistant diseases, particularly hospital-born ailments such Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA, continue to be a problem. IBM teamed up with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology to announce an antimicrobial hydrogel that can break through diseased biofilms and kill drug-resistant bacteria upon contact.

The synthetic hydrogel, which forms spontaneously when heated to body temperature, is the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, making it an ideal tool to combat serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients, IBM said.

Microbial biofilms -- which are adhesive groupings of diseased cells present in 80 percent of all infections – are able to colonize on almost any tissue or surface. They persist at various sites in the human body, especially in association with medical equipment and devices. They contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections, which are among the top five leading causes of death in the United States and account for up to $11 billion in health-care spending each year, IBM added

Despite advanced sterilization and aseptic techniques, infections associated with medical devices have not been eradicated. This is due, in part, to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic drug resistance in the United States costs an estimated $20 billion a year in health-care costs as well as 8 million additional days spent in the hospital.

Antimicrobials are traditionally used for disinfecting various surfaces and can be found in traditional household items like alcohol and bleach. However, moving from countertops to treating drug resistant skin infections or infectious diseases in the body are proving to be more challenging as conventional antibiotics become less effective and many household surface disinfectants are not suitable for biological applications.

IBM Research and its collaborators developed a remoldable synthetic antimicrobial hydrogel, comprised of more than 90 percent water, which, if commercialized, is ideal for applications like creams or injectable therapeutics for wound healing, implant and catheter coatings, skin infections or even orifice barriers, IBM said.

Through the precise tailoring of polymers, researchers designed macromolecules, a molecular structure containing a large number of atoms, which combine water solubility, positive charge, and biodegradability characteristics. When mixed with water and heated to body temperature the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate. This highly desirable capability stems from self-associative interactions that create a “molecular zipper” effect. Analogous to how zipper teeth link together, the short segments on the new polymers also interlock, thickening the water-based solution into re-moldable and compliant hydrogels. Since they exhibit many of the characteristics of water-soluble polymers without being freely dissolved, such materials can remain in place under physiological conditions while still demonstrating antimicrobial activity.

"This is a fundamentally different approach to fighting drug-resistant biofilms,” said James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Research, Almaden, in a statement. “When compared to capabilities of modern-day antibiotics and hydrogels, this new technology carries immense potential. This new technology is appearing at a crucial time as traditional chemical and biological techniques for dealing with drug-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases are increasingly problematic.”

When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel’s positive charge attracts all negatively charged microbial membranes, like powerful gravitation into a black hole, IBM said. However, unlike most antibiotics and hydrogels, which target the internal machinery of bacteria to prevent replication, this hydrogel kills bacteria by membrane disruption, precluding the emergence of any resistance.

IBM Creates New Antimicrobial Hydrogel to Fight Superbugs and Drug-Resistant Biofilms

“We were driven to develop a more effective therapy against superbugs due to the lethal threat of infection by these rapidly mutating microbes and the lack of novel antimicrobial drugs to fight them. Using the inexpensive and versatile polymer materials that we have developed jointly with IBM, we can now launch a nimble, multi-pronged attack on drug-resistant biofilms which would help to improve medical and health outcomes,” said Dr Yi-Yan Yang, the group leader working on the project at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, in a statement.

The IBM nanomedicine polymer program -- which started in IBM's Research labs only four years ago with the mission to improve human health – stems from decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies. This advance will expand the scope of IBM and IBN’s collaborative program, allowing scientists to simultaneously pursue multiple methods for creating materials to improve medicine and drug discovery. An industry and institute collaboration of this scale brings together the minds and resources of several leading scientific institutions to address the complex challenges in making practical nanomedicine solutions a reality.

Hedrick said IBM’s work comes out of the systems giant’s nanomedicine efforts, in particular the company’s hunt to enable chemotherapeutics that improve cancer therapy without wracking the patient’s body with side effects.

“A lot of the chemistry we were working on for other applications was easily transferrable to the medical space,” Hedrick said. “The antimicrobial polymer mimicked the way our body’s immune system works.”

The hydrogel works for gram-positive bacteria such as MRSA, gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli, as well as yeast and fungi infections, Hedrick said.

He said the hydrogel could be used as not only for wound healing and skin infections, but also to treat biofilm colonies that might form around replacement joints to prevent additional corrective surgery, as well as for cleaning equipment and surfaces for food and beverage preparation.

However, while IBM is instrumental in creating the technology that makes this hydrogel work, the company will not be building any products or services around it, Hedrick said. Instead, the company will act out the narrative in the old BASF commercials with the tagline: "At BASF, we don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better."

“IBM is not going to make pharmaceuticals, but we will partner with other companies in a variety of areas,” Hedrick told eWEEK. “The way we work here in the Smarter Planet arena is that we create a lot of things that will not become products, but that help us deliver other things to our clients.”

Hedrick said IBM is partnering with a variety of partners that include consumer products manufacturers of things like anti-dandruff shampoos, deodorants, cleaning supplies, wound care and healing products, coatings, as well as pharmaceuticals.

“IBM does not do animal testing or anything of that nature; our partners at IBN do some of that,” Hedrick said. “They do a beautiful job of all the bio-engineering. We bring along the chemistry.”

IBM has been very active in the polymer chemistry field for 30 years, Hedrick said. In a related project at IBM’s Almaden research center, multifunctional polymer micelles and dendrimers are being designed, synthesized and tested for the co-delivery of therapeutic agents to combat drug-resistance and improve cancer therapy, as well as for simultaneous therapy and diagnostics, he said.

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