IBM Adapts Semiconductor Nanotechnology to Fight Infectious Diseases

With the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, IBM has tailored the chemistry of semiconductor manufacturing to build nanostructures that fight infectious diseases.

Researchers at IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have taken some of the chemicals used to create chips and servers to build polymers that can detect and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases such as staph infections or MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

The Singapore institute performs research on how to use nanotechnology to advance areas such as drug and gene delivery, cancer therapy and wound healing.

Nanostructures formed at IBM's Almaden research facility in northern California are used to generate 22-nanometer or 14-nanometer nodes. These nanostructures can also attract infected cells and eradicate MSRA bacteria while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

"With this discovery we've been able to leverage decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies to create an entirely new drug delivery mechanism that could make them more specific and effective," Dr. James Hedrick, advanced organic materials scientist for IBM Research-Almaden, said in a statement.

MRSA is an increasingly common bacteria found in public places such as gyms, schools and hospitals, and its cell walls and membranes are often resistant to drugs, IBM reports. Antibiotics that can fight MRSA also kill healthy red blood cells at the same time.

"The number of bacteria in the palm of a hand outnumbers the entire human population," Hedrick said.

Nanostructures built from the same chemical process as semiconductors could heal wounds, tuberculosis and lung infections and eventually appear in consumer products such as deodorant, soap, hand sanitizers, table wipes and preservatives.

"Block polymers are very important in terms of next-generation electronics, but we found that the capabilities we've developed are very useful for broader problems of societal impact, like antimicrobial materials to combat superbugs like MRSA," Bob Allen, senior manager for advanced materials in the chemistry department at IBM Research-Almaden, told eWEEK.

"Using our novel nanostructures, we can offer a viable therapeutic solution for the treatment of MRSA and other infectious diseases," Dr. Yiyan Yang, group leader for the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, Singapore, said in a statement. "This exciting discovery effectively integrates our capabilities in biomedical sciences and materials research to address key issues in conventional drug delivery."

To prevent bacteria resistance, researchers assemble nanoparticles in water through electrostatic interaction, while penetrating the bacteria's cell membranes and walls, and leaving healthy cells untouched, IBM reports.

In the water, the polymers assemble and build nanostructures of 100 nanometers in size, Allen explained.

The nanomedical polymers are biodegradable, allowing them to fight the bacteria and then leave the body naturally, he said.

For this project, announced on April 4, IBM and the Singapore institute tested the antimicrobial polymers with microbial samples from State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases at First Affiliated Hospital, located at the Zhejiang University School of Medicine, in China.

When developing chemicals for microelectronics, precisely constructed materials are essential, according to Allen.

The nanotechnology used to build the disease-fighting polymers can also be found in IBM's DNA-transistor technology, in which IBM scientists drill nano-size holes in computerlike chips to send DNA strands through them and enable the chips to read the genetic code.

In addition, IBM is using nanotechnology to decode DNA along with pharmaceutical and diagnostics company Roche to personalize medicine.