Semiconductor expertise for nanomedicine breakthrough

For decades, IBM has been known for its leadership in semiconductors, winning the National Medal of Technology in 2005. This award specifically acknowledged over 40 years of IBM semiconductor leadership across a broad spectrum of technologies, including DRAM, copper, Silicon on Insulator, and Silicon Germanium. These innovations — and the Research leaders that have made them possible — have laid the foundation for IBM's continued success in decades to come.

In recent years, IBM researchers are expanding upon lessons learned in intellectual property in semiconductors, and paving the way for IBM to move into entirely new business areas: developing types of plastic that are more friendly for recycling, membranes for water desalination and reading human DNA more easily and quickly (DNA sequencing), just to name a few.

Fundamental principles of nanotechnology like these are allowing IBM to move into entirely new markets and to partner in brand new ways.

Today, Nature Chemistry published a paper by IBM scientists that essentially describes the application of nanotechnology expertise to healthcare, specifically the treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

So how exactly can things like magnetism and electrical conductivity be applied to things like medicine and treating infectious disease?

There are two main issues with conventional antibiotics today – one is that they indiscriminately affect all cells – they have no way to tell which ones are infected and which ones are not. Many times it takes multiple cycles of prescribed antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

The second problem is that they do not penetrate cells – so the antibiotics surround infected cells while damaging nearby healthy cells, ultimately allowing bacteria to get stronger and become immune to the antibiotics. Further, the remaining antibiotics typically stay in the body and accumulate in the organs, causing damaging side effects.

Researchers at IBM have designed special nanostructures that have been proven to tackle these two problems. Once in contact with water, the polymers in these agents self-assemble into new structures that are basically magnetically attracted to bacteria membranes based on their electrostatic interaction. Once they ‘find’ the bacterial-infected cells, they break the membrane walls and destroy the bacteria from within the cell. Since there is no physical attraction to the healthy cells, those remain untouched; they can still transport oxygen throughout the body and combat bacteria on their own. Finally, the nanostructures are biodegradable – once they’ve done their job, they leave the body.

MRSA is just one type of dangerous bacteria commonly found on the skin and contracted in places like gyms, schools and hospitals. In 2005, MRSA was responsible for 95,000 serious infections and associated with almost 19,000 hospital stay–related deaths in the United States. Bacteria like MRSA require high doses of antibiotics, which ultimately end up destroying healthy red blood cells in addition to contaminated ones – and even the bad ones end up largely undamaged. For a disease that kills 20% of people that contract it, a better solution needed to be explored.

The ability to explore these uncovered areas is supported by IBM’s long-term vision and investment in research. As science takes us down to the most fundamental structures of life, techniques like these are becoming useful and necessary tools on the path to create better diagnostics and treatments for patients. We’ve already successfully applied principles like these to healthcare initiatives such as 3-D MRI and a one step point-of-care diagnostic test called Lab on a Chip.

For the near-term, these specific agents are intended to be utilized in treating skin infections through the use of deodorants, soaps, hand sanitizers and the like; IBM scientists are looking at developing treatments for things like tuberculosis, lung infections and healing wounds.

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