Researchers claim to have developed a powerful drug delivery mechanism capable of detecting and destroying antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases, such as MRSA, using IBM semiconductor nanotechnology.

Scientists at the Institute of Bioengineering & Nanotechnology described the technique as “revolutionary” and said it had the potential to dramatically increase antibiotics’ effectiveness in fighting infectious diseases.

According to The World Health Organisation, at least 25,000 patients in the European Union alone die every year from an infection caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria.

Using the newly developed technique, nanoparticles make antibiotics physically attract to infected cells like a magnet, then penetrate the cell wall and destroy the infection from the inside out – which today’s antibiotics cannot do with precision.

The agents also prevent the bacteria from developing drug resistance by actually breaking through the bacterial cell wall and membrane, a fundamentally different mode of attack compared to traditional antibiotics.   

MRSA is one of the main types of dangerous bacteria that is commonly found on the skin and easily contracted in places where people are in close contact. In 2005, it was responsible for nearly 95,000 serious infections, and associated with almost 19,000 hospital stay-related deaths in the United States.

The challenge with infections similar to MRSA is two-fold. First, drug resistance occurs because microorganisms are able to evolve to effectively resist antibiotics as current treatments leave their cell wall and membrane largely undamaged. Additionally, the high doses of antibiotics needed to kill such an infection indiscriminately destroy healthy red blood cells in addition to contaminated ones.  

“The number of bacteria in the palm of a hand outnumbers the entire human population,” said Dr. James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, at IBM Research. “With this discovery we’ve been able to leverage decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies to create an entirely new drug delivery mechanism that could make them more specific and effective.”  

If commercially manufactured, the scientists said, these biodegradable nanostructures could be injected directly into the body or applied to the skin, treating skin infections through consumer products like deodorant, soap, hand sanitizer, table wipes and preservatives, as well as be used to help heal wounds, tuberculosis and lung infections.  

The electric charge naturally found in cells is important because the new polymer structures are attracted only to the infected areas while preserving the healthy red blood cells the body needs to transport oxygen throughout the body and combat bacteria. The new antimicrobial materials, unlike most others, are biodegradable, which enhances their potential application because they are naturally eliminated from the body, the scientists said.

Researchers from IBM are also applying principles from nanotechnology to create potential medical innovations including the DNA Transistor and 3-D MRI. Most recently they have been working on a one step point-of-care-diagnostic test based on an innovative silicon chip that requires less sample volume, can be significantly faster, portable, easy to use, and can test for many diseases.

Dubbed “Lab on a Chip,” the results are quick enough for a small sample of a patient’s blood to be tested immediately following a heart attack to enable the doctor to quickly take a course of action to help the patient survive, IBM has said.