Nanoparticles may 'kick backside' of fatal bacteria

Joint discovery by IBM Research and Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology could help slow number of deaths from MRSA "superbug." Potential treatment arises from semiconductor research.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

Every year, an infectious "superbug" known as MRSA kills thousands of Americans who never should have died. But an international group of scientists think they may have found the key to shutting down the lethal bacteria that leads to these deaths and to countless less-serious infections.

According to IBM Research, which worked with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore on the discovery of the new antibiotic nanoparticles, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) killed 19,000 Americans in 2005.


This dangerous infectious bacteria is often found in hospitals and other places, like health clubs and schools, where people come into close contact with each other. And IBM says that health professionals have had an extremely hard time combating MRSA and similar bacteria because they are micro-organisms that can quickly evolve and resist existing antibiotics, mainly because the drugs don't effectively attack the cell walls or membranes of the bacteria.

But according to Jim Hedrick, the advanced organic materials scientist at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., the new nanoparticle material that the international team has come up with "Doesn't just muck with the DNA [of the bacteria], it kicks some serious backside."

In other words, Hedrick explained, the potential now exists to make a kind of biodegradable nanoparticle that can be applied to the human body, either through injection or topical application, that could eradicate superbugs like MRSA. And looking down the line, Hedrick added, the team thinks other dangerous bacteria, like E-coli, could also be in its gun sights.

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And for those who may find it interesting that IBM would be working on science like this, it's actually not that surprising, the company says.

That's because the underlying technology behind the discovery of the nanoparticles came from IBM's work in semiconductor manufacturing, it said.

Not ready for prime time
Though there's a lot of promise in the nanoparticles, Hedrick said these new treatments are nowhere near ready for public use. First they would have to be put through clinical trials, and that's something IBM is not allowed to be involved in. But he said, IBM's Singaporean partners in the project have already done research that demonstrates that the nanoparticles present no toxicity to human cells, meaning they could very well be safe to use while potentially addressing one of the most serious problems to plague hospitals and other public venues.

At the heart of the potential new treatment is a set of nanostructured polymer materials that have a very specific electric charge, Hedrick said. The idea is that they would rip apart the cell walls and membranes of the dangerous bacteria by creating an electrostatic interaction in which the particles' north pole meets the south pole of the bacterium and goes after the microbe's charge. Then, a fluid system "disrupts this membrane and basically rips it open."

Other uses
While IBM and its Singaporean partner are touting the possible impact their nanoparticle treatment could have on serious bacteria like MRSA, Hedrick said there are also more pedestrian applications.

For example, it could be employed in low-end products where bacteria "play an adverse role" like deodorants and mouthwash. As well, it could be used in things like bandages or sutures, and other products used in healing wounds, and catheters, since about 20 percent of people who use them end up with infections that are expensive to treat, he said.

The IBM Research and Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology scientists published their findings today in the journal "Nature Chemistry."