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IBM says new gel can kill drug-resistant superbugs

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With the rapid emergence of drug-resistant superbugs like MRSA and E. coli, the clock is ticking as researchers and hospitals are running out of effective treatments against one of the biggest public health threats today.

But now researchers at IBM say they've hit on something that, on contact, kills these seemingly invincible germs. Best of all, it comes in a tube and can be readily applied to disinfect open wounds. The discovery comes via a press release in which the tech giant refers to the synthetic concoction as an antimicrobial hydrogel that appears safe in that its biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic. Unlike the current arsenal of disinfectants, such as alcohol and bleach and other household solutions, the gel's comprised of more than 90% water, making it ideal for applications like creams or injectable treatments for wound healing, skin infections and other injuries.

But where the material may have the most profound impact is in hospital settings, where slimy bacterial excretions known as biofilms can accumulate on and around medical equipment and devices. Government statistics show that this common form of plaque buildup contributes significantly to hospital-acquired infections, which are among the top five leading causes of death in the United States and account for up to $11 billion in healthcare spending each year.

In developing the hydrogel, the researchers collaborated with Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore to devise an approach to germ-fighting that's radically different from an antibiotic like penicillin, which works by disrupting the microbe's metabolic functioning. Instead, the polymer-based formulation was designed to exhibit specific properties such as water-solubility, malleability and a positive charge to attract the negatively charged microbes' and, when in contact, cause their membranes to explode. In theory, it's impossible for bacteria to evolve genetic resistance to this method of attack the way they do with other treatments.

“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," said Dr. Yi-Yan Yang of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. "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.”

But we're still early in the research stage and until the hydrogel actually makes its way into hospitals, the medical community remains skeptical but cautiously optimistic.

Here's a sampling of reactions from the Australian research news site The Conversation:

“Their claim they can penetrate a biofilm is good, if it turns out to be verified independently by others. If they can inject [the gel] that’s a major step.”

Professor Collignon said that if the new hydrogel could damage the germ’s cell membranes, it may damage cell membranes in the body as well.

Dr. Marc Pellegrini, an infectious diseases researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said the discovery “has a lot of potential.”

“A lot of the bugs in hospitals at the moment are resistant to the drugs that we have. In places like intensive care units, patients have a lot of devices implanted in them like catheters or tubes to deliver drugs and these tubes often get contaminated with microbes. This is hard to treat,” said Dr. Pellegrini, who was not involved in the research by IBM.

“This new discovery looks like it may well have application in preventing these surfaces becoming contaminated but it’s quite a few steps away from being put into practice in a hospital.”

Some antimicrobials that worked well in the lab presented unforeseen problems when used in humans, he said.

“It’s still early days.”

More on the battle on bacteria:

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— By on February 6, 2013, 8:40 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure