Over 20,000 people die in the U.S. alone from bacteria and fungi that have become resistant to antibiotics. The treatment cost for fungal infections -- which range from athlete’s foot to life-threatening blood infections -- is expected to increase to $6 billion in 2014.
Compared with bacteria, fungi are particularly challenging because their cellular machinery are so close to our own. That means any drugs that sabotage their molecular processes could badly affect our healthy cells.
So how do you create an antifungal compound that doesn’t cause us harm -- while avoiding resistance? By punching holes in the membranes that surrounds each of their cells. Technology Review explains:
These membrane-attacking compounds mimic one of the body’s natural defenses -- antimicrobial peptides that insert themselves into a microbe’s outer membrane and break open the bug.
IBM Research, together with Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), has developed just such a ninja compound that destroys fungal cells and disappears without harming healthy ones. Its polymer-like structure has weak bonds between each molecule, allowing the material to degrade over time, rather than accumulate in our bodies.
And this all starts with a common plastic called PET.
Whenever IBM’s James Hedrick needs more starting material, he just goes to the nearest recycling bin in the San Jose facility, finds a plastic bottle, and cuts a piece of out of it, he told Tech Review.
So far, the plastic-derived Ninja Polymer is capable of killing Candida albicans fungi infecting the eyes of mice. And whereas Candida developed resistance to a conventional antifungal drug, the fungus didn’t develop resistance to the new compound -- even after 11 treatments.
The team is now actively seeking pharmaceutical companies to further develop this work for future clinical applications, according to an IBN news release.
While this particular study focuses on antifungal activity, a similar compound can take out superbug MRSA. Check out IBM’s infographic below.
The work was published in Nature Communications this week.
[IBM Research press release via Technology Review]