Breaking the bacteria barrier
New hydrogel born from semiconductor research may help save lives
We are obsessed with cleanliness. From anti-bacterial cart wipes at the supermarket to individual sized packages of wipes and gels that we can carry in a pocket or a purse - you'd think we were winning in the war against germs.
But in hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, the potential for infection still exists. Despite advanced sterilization and aseptic techniques, infections associated with medical devices and surfaces have not been eradicated, thanks to the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
According to the CDC, antibiotic drug resistance in the U.S. costs an estimated $20 billion a year in healthcare costs as well as 8 million additional days spent in the hospital1. And hospital-acquired infections are among the top five leading causes of death in the United States and account for up to $11 billion in healthcare spending each year2.
And while personal anti-bacterial products exist on the market today in the form of the aforementioned hand gels and wipes, these products target very common germs and most contain ethanol as a key ingredient. Ethanol evaporates after a very short time after application and does not provide long-lasting protection.
Cleaning products that effectively destroy bacteria on surfaces, including alcohol and bleach, also break down and/or evaporate after a short period of time and are not transferrable for human application based on their toxicity.
Now imagine a long-lasting substance that is biocompatible and non-toxic, but also biodegradable. A substance that destroys specific types of bacteria but leaves healthy skin and cells alone – one that could be applied to medical facility surfaces, surgical and diagnostic instruments, and even – one day - medical implants.
IBM Research, in association with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have taken a first step towards that future with the development of an antimicrobial hydrogel that can break through diseased biofilms and eradicate drug-resistant bacteria upon contact.
“ 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. ”
Dr Yi-Yan Yang, Group Leader, Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, Singapore
It began with computer chips
The IBM nanomedicine polymer program began in IBM Research labs only four years ago with the mission to improve human health.
The program itself stems from decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies. In earlier chip development research, IBM researchers identified specific materials that, when chained together, produced an electrostatic charge that allows microscopic etching on a wafer to be done at a much smaller scale.
This newfound knowledge that characterization of materials could be manipulated at the atomic level to control their movement inspired the team to see what else they could do with these new kinds of polymer structures. They started with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
The outcome of that experiment was the creation of what are now playfully known as "ninja polymers" – sticky nanostructures that move quickly to target infected cells in the body, destroy the harmful content inside, and can then disappear by biodegrading without causing damaging side effects or accumulating in the organs. As a bonus, all of this occurs without damaging healthy cells in the area.
The next step was to figure out how to apply this new capability to other applications to help fight harmful bacteria.On the left is a mature and healthy MRSA biofilm. After the hydrogel is applied, the biofilm is destroyed as seen on the right. Photo Credit: IBN
Zipping molecules and zapping bacteria
Through the precise tailoring of polymers, researchers were able to create macromolecules - molecular structures containing a large number of atoms - which combine water solubility, a positive charge, and biodegradability. When mixed with water and heated to normal body temperature, the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate.
“ This is a fundamentally different approach to fighting drug-resistant biofilms. 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. ”
James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, IBM Research
This capability stems from internal reactions that create a molecular "zipper" effect. Similar to how zipper teeth link together, the short segments on the new polymers interlock, thickening the water-based solution into moldable and highly malleable hydrogels.
When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel's positive charge attracts negatively charged microbial membranes, like stars and planets being pulled into a black hole. However, unlike other antimicrobials that target the internal machinery of bacteria to try to prevent it from replicating, this hydrogel destroys the bacteria by rupturing the bacteria’s membrane, rendering it completely unable to regenerate or spread.
The hydrogel developed by the team is comprised of more than 90 percent water, making it easy to handle and apply to surfaces. It also makes it potentially viable for eventual inclusion in applications like creams or injectable therapeutics for wound healing, implant and catheter coatings, skin infections or even orifice barriers. It is the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, potentially making it an ideal tool to combat serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients.
By preventing infections before they happen, doctors, hospitals, patients and healthcare providers may one day all benefit from improved medical outcomes and lower healthcare costs. This jointly developed hydrogel may be a key that helps open that door to the future.