The Twitter world, along with much of technology press, is aflutter with news that researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, along with testing assistance from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, have developed a nanoparticle that could combat bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics.
The research, which was initially published in the journal Nature Chemistry, claims to report “the first biodegradable and in vivo applicable antimicrobial polymer nanoparticles synthesized by metal-free organocatalytic ring-opening polymerization of functional cyclic carbonate.”
The nanoparticles are essentially polymers that are designed to pierce the outer membrane of certain bacteria to kill them. It is this piercing of the bacteria membrane that makes it difficult for the bacteria to develop a resistance.
While other drugs have been developed (with little success) that pierce the membrane wall of bacteria, they always suffered from their toxicity to animal cells and poor reactions to the complexity of human biology. These nanoparticles could be used in a drug, or in a topical gel, and are biocompatible.
The leader of the research James Hedrick took the body of knowledge that had been accumulated on polymer building blocks for creating nanoparticles and adapted them to this purpose. The result is a nanoparticle that has a “backbone” of a polymer that is both water soluble and attracted to the bacterial membrane. By placing hydrophobic sequences at either end of the backbone the structure begins to self-assemble into spherical nanoparticles when water is added.
The prospect of developing a drug that fights bacteria that have developed resistance to bacteria is attractive, no doubt, especially when one considers that in 2005 nearly 95,000 people in the US alone developed staph infections brought on by antibiotic resistant bacteria.
However, what I find intriguing about this story is that the IBM researchers believe they have developed a template, of sorts, for combating an assortment of bacteria.
“Through molecular tailoring," says Robert Allen, senior manager of materials chemistry at IBM Almaden, in the Tech Review article, "we can do all sorts of things." With the reporter seeming to add: “designing particles with a particular shape, charge, water solubility, or other property.”
That is perhaps the most interesting bit of this news for me because what it suggests is that the researchers have achieved a “material by design” capability that would be really remarkable.