IBM's Tiny Technology Rips Up Drug-Resistant Germ Cells in Early Research

International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), the world’s largest computer-services provider, is developing a technology that searches out drug-resistant germs in the body and destroys them, addressing a $34 billion-a-year public health problem.

Engineers based in IBM’s San Jose, California, facility have created nanoparticles 50,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair that can obliterate the cell walls of drug-resistant bacteria. The structures then harmlessly degrade, leaving no residue, according to a study describing the work in the journal Nature Chemistry.

When antibiotic drugs are used to attack a colony of bacteria, they sometimes leave behind survivors that become resistant to the medicine’s future use. These germs kill 100,000 U.S. hospital patients a year, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America.

IBM’s technology “goes outside the scheme of current antibiotics to something that physically destroys bacteria,” said Mario Raviglione, chief of the World Health Organization’s Stop TB department, in a telephone interview. “If this is proven to work in humans, it will simply revolutionize the way we deal with antimicrobial treatment.”

Traditional antibiotics interfere with bacterial DNA to neutralize or prevent them from replicating.

The nanoparticles, made of biodegradable plastic, were engineered to have a specific electrical charge that draws them to the oppositely charged bacteria. Tests in laboratory dishes confirmed that they have the ability to destroy the cells. They also caused no harm in separate tests in mice, the research found.

U.S., Singapore Collaboration

The technology was designed by an IBM team led by James Hedrick that collaborated with scientists at the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. The scientists specifically aimed the nanoparticles at methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a widely circulating strain of drug-resistant bacteria.

IBM, based in Armonk, New York, is now talking to pharmaceutical companies to prepare the particles for human testing, Hedrick said. He declined to name the companies.

The nanoparticles “rip holes in the membrane walls and the contents basically spill out,” said Hedrick, a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Center. “They’re very selective and once they do their job, they go away. They degrade into an innocuous by-product.”

Blood Cells Safe

The particles are so focused on their bacterial target that they completely avoid damaging the red blood cells where the microbes lodge, Hedrick said in a telephone interview. “

Hedrick’s team designed a batch of the nanoparticles to attack MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a widely circulating strain of drug-resistant bacteria. Scientists at the nanotechnology institute in Singapore will now test the miniature polymers in larger animals.

Some 9 million children globally die of respiratory infections and diarrhea, many from pathogens impervious to drugs, the WHO’s Raviglione said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rob Waters in San Francisco at rwaters5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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