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nano MRSAThe rise of drug-resistant bacteria is looming as one of the major threats to public health across the globe. Already, it’s a mortal danger to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. As more and more microbes emerge that are capable of fending off antibiotics, our ability to fight infectious diseases will be diminished throughout society. But help is on the way—from the field of nanotechnology. And the fix could have huge implications for the future of health care.

Nano Ninja “stabs” Evil Microbe

Scientists from IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif., and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore are collaborating to develop a new way to kill bacteria. It’s a polymer nano-structure that is designed to defeat everything from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is running wild in nursing homes, to bugs causing tuberculosis and lung infections. The material can also be used for wound healing and in consumer products like deodorants and mouthwash. “We envision endless applications,” says Dr. James Hedrick, the organic materials scientist who is the lead inventor on the project.

The team has been working on the technique for four years and unveiled their breakthrough on April 3 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Nature Chemistry.

The scientists are cautious about their claims, since they still have to prove that their technique and materials will be effective on humans and affordable. But Robert Allen, senior manager of Almaden’s advanced materials chemistry department, believes the invention could eventually have a huge impact. “Penicillin is a good analogy,” he says. “This could be a medical turning point on that scale. It could give the fight against evil organisms a brand new weapon.”

The scientists have nicknamed their invention the Ninja Polymer. That’s because of the way it kills germs. Their tiny polymer molecules have the ability to identify microbes by sensing their electrical charges, self-assembling into nano-structures, attaching to the microbes, and, essentially, stabbing them so they break down and die. Because the attacks are physical, bacteria are unable to evolve and develop resistance to them. The polymers are attracted only to infected areas while leaving untouched healthy cells. And, unlike most antimicrobial polymers, these are naturally eliminated from the body rather than accumulating in organs.

This is a great example of the power of collaboration. The IBM scientists specialize in chemistry. Making use of lessons they learned from the semiconductor field, they designed the antimicrobial polymers and are developing a technique for mass producing them at low cost. Meanwhile, the scientists at IBN specialize in biology and genetics. They study how the nanostructures interact with cells and the human body.

The two organizations have begun talking to pharmaceutical, medical supply and consumer products companies about commercializing the invention in a variety of markets. Hedrick and Allen estimate that it could take just two to three years to bring it to market for surface wound healing, but it might require five years or more for injectable products to arrive.

In the meantime, think about this: Ninja Polymer vs. Evil Microbes, the movie.

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