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

IBM announced that it has had a hand in creating a new hydrogel capable of killing superbugs and drug-resistant infections like MRSA

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.