IBM and Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery

The researchers Fredrik Nederberg, Kazuki Fukushima and James L. Hedrick from IBM Research at IBM Almaden Research Center, San Jose, CA, USA and the researchers Ying Zhang, Jeremy P. K. Tan, Chuan Yang, Shujun Gao and Yi-Yan Yang from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, in Singapore made an important discovery in nanomedicine. Their discovery, published online in Nature on 3 April 2011, demonstrated that:

  • New types of polymers can physically detect and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (known as MRSA) Biodegradable nanostructures are physically attracted to infected cells like a magnet attracts iron filings, allowing them to selectively eradicate hard to treat bacteria without destroying healthy cells on the surroundings;
  • These nanostructures also prevent the bacteria from developing drug resistance by actually breaking through the bacterial cell wall and membrane, thereby inducing the lyses of these cells. This mode of attack approach is fundamentally different from the traditional antibiotics approach.

MRSA is just one type of dangerous bacteria that is commonly found on the skin and easily contracted in places like gymnasiums, schools and hospitals.

In 2005, MRSA was responsible for about 95,000 serious infections and was associated with almost 19,000 hospital stay-related deaths in the USA. This is why MRSA is designated as a hospital bacterium.

The challenge to combat bacterial infections such as MRSA has two aspects:

  • Drug resistance occurs because microorganisms are able to evolve to a new form effectively resistant to antibiotics (previously administered antibiotics prior to the evolution). This happens because current treatments leave their cell wall and membrane typically undamaged;
  • The high doses of antibiotics required to kill such an infection destroy both contaminated cells as well as healthy red blood cells, through a indiscriminately way.

Once these polymers come into contact with water in our body, they self assemble into a new polymer structure that is designed to target bacteria membranes based on electrostatic interaction and break through their cell membranes and walls (inducing lyses). Upon the physical pesrpective, this action prevents bacteria from developing resistance to these nanoparticles. The electric charge naturally found in cells is crucial because the new polymer structures are attracted only to the infected areas, combating bacteria, while preserving the healthy red blood cells.

This discovery is highly relevant because it strongly enhances the potential application:

  • IBM Research created an entirely new mechanism of nanotechnology in drug delivery specifically designed to target an infected area to allow for a systemic delivery of the drug, which can become more specific and effective;
  • The use of those new biodegradable nanostructures highly and effectively contributes to viable therapy of MRSA and other infectious diseases. Unlike most antimicrobial materials, these are biodegradable: they are naturally eliminated from the body (rather than remaining into the body accumulating in organs).

Ironically, the discovered was achieved by applying principles used in semiconductor manufacturing.

IBM has a long and continuing commitment to nanoscience and nanotechnology. Just a few examples, among many:

  • On 1981, the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM) was invented by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer (at IBM Zürich) – Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.
  • On September 28, 1989, the IBM researcher Don Eigler (at the IBM Almaden Research Center), using a STM and 35 individual atoms of Xenon, printed the IBM logo;
  • On 3 April 2011, the breakthrough described above launches IBM at full speed in the fields of nanotechnology in drug delivery.

It is my strong conviction that, in what concerns to IBM research in the adoption of nanotechnology to medicine and biomedicine, the very best is yet to come.

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