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Unlikely allies: how a computer company could help kill a superbug

Unlikely allies: how a computer company could help kill a superbug

Posting in Technology

In their quest for improving computers, IBM stumbled upon something that might help doctors fight antibiotic resistant staph infections.

You might have heard some buzz about a disease called "MRSA." That's methicillin-resistant Stephylococcus aureus and it's a type of staph bacteria that is immune to antibiotics. Which means treating it is a nightmare. The so-called "superbug" kills about 90,000 people in the United States each year. It's commonly contracted at hospitals - where patients are at a higher risk of infection.

Doctors and researchers all over the world have been putting their heads together trying to figure out how to stop and kill MRSA. They were recently joined by an unusual ally: IBM. The computer company wasn't really trying to work on MRSA of course - why would an IT company want anything to do with antibiotic resistant bacteria? But in the process of working on something they did care about - decreasing the size of computer chips - they might have stumbled upon something quite useful in the fight against MRSA.

The technology is chemical in nature - IBM was trying to use chemistry and nanotechnology to improve their chips. That means employing chemists that work with plastics and creating new kinds of polymers that have all sorts of applications. And those polymers, it turns out, have antimicrobial components.

But they don't work like your standard antibiotics - which is a good thing in the case of MRSA. “The mechanism through which they fight bacteria is very different from the way an antibiotic works,” James Hedrick told Forbes. “They try to mimic what the immune system does: the polymer attaches to the bacteria’s membrane and then facilitates destabilization of the membrane. It falls apart, everything falls out and there’s little opportunity for it to develop resistance to these polymers.”

Basically, what they're talking about is nanomedicine. But unlike other nanomedical compounds like titanium oxide, these polymers aren't potentially hazardous to our health. "The polymers selectively alter dangerous micro-organisms in our bodies in a way that doesn’t allow them to regenerate or build resistance to drugs –all without affecting nearby healthy cells," Forbes explains. And the IBM polymers are biodegradable, so they work and then go away.

The next step it for IBM to hand the baton over to people who actually develop drugs. Henrick has worked with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore in the past, and will probably partner with them and other companies to bring these polymers into everyday use. "We’re not a chemical company so we’re talking to a lot of people about taking this to the next level in areas where they know better," Henricks told Forbes.

Via: Forbes

Image: Janice Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure