As humanity continues to carpet bomb the microscopic world with antibiotics, the enemy is fighting back. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise, and that can mean painful or life-threatening infections for those unfortunate enough to come into contact with such organisms. One of the most common resistant bacteria is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), but researchers at IBM are working on a potential treatment that relies on polymers instead of drugs that was recently posted on USENET newsgroups.
In the process of developing computer chips a number of years ago, IBM engineers identified polymers that allowed them the carefully control electrostatic charge and improve wafer etching. IBM decided to see if this technology could have applications outside of microprocessor design, and they turned to MRSA.
The interaction of molecules on the small scale is governed by charges and three-dimensional structure. Researchers were able to produce what they’re calling ninja polymers that have the correct electrostatic charge to bind to the cell wall of bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus. The polymer interferes with the structure of the cell wall, and as the bacterial cell grows, its cell wall ruptures and it dies.
This mode of action is actually borrowed from nature. Methicillin antibiotics in the penicillin class all have a structure called the beta-lactam ring. This part of the molecule binds to bacterial cell wall components, interferes with the structure, and breaks the cell apart just like the polymer. However, bacteria have developed defenses that can destroy the beta-lactam ring, or have altered their cell wall components to prevent binding.
The polymer is less likely to promote resistance traits in bacteria as it is not naturally occurring and doesn’t rely on the same level of specific molecule-molecule interaction to bind and destroy cells. Normal human cells don’t have any of the same components as a bacterial cell does, so they are unaffected by the polymer. There is also no risk of long-term toxicity from contact with these polymers — they are bioneutral and decompose on their own in a short time.
This material could not only treat disease one day, it might be applied to surfaces as a way to prevent bacterial growth. You might even find it in consumer products as a preservative. It’s interesting work, but there’s still a long way to go before we move beyond antibiotics.