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Summary:

While designing a chip, the researchers noticed the polymer they were working with had unusual properties. In a world where drug resistance is rampant, it could be a lifesaver.

C. albicans biofilm
photo: IBM

Sometimes scientific breakthroughs appear where they are least expected.

IBM lead scientist Jim Hedrick and his colleagues were working on a computer chip when they developed a custom polymer. They realized that along with meeting their needs for the chip, it was also biocompatible and biodegradable, making it an excellent medical candidate. They could also create the polymer by breaking down recycled plastic bottles. They published their work today in Nature Communications (subscription required).

The team began thinking about applications and settled on creating a new kind of treatment for fungal infections.

“We noticed that in the antifungal space there was not much work going on and the drugs that were available were starting to develop resistance,” Hedrick said. “You don’t think about fungi that much, but people who are immune compromised … they are very susceptible toward fungal infections.”

From locker room floors to bus seats, we subject ourselves to fungi cells constantly. An infection can range from an annoying case of athlete’s foot to a life-threatening invasion for someone who has been diagnosed with AIDS. A fungal infection can become even more worrisome when the cells exhibit drug resistance, reducing options for medical treatment.

The IBM polymer works in two ways. Previous antifungals had trouble targeting fungi cells because they are very similar to mammal cells. The polymer takes advantage of fungi cells’ slight negative charge to target them more accurately. Then it explodes the cells’ membrane, killing it. The researchers were also surprised to find the polymer destroyed biofilms: a nasty goop that fungi can form inside the body.

“Most of the medicines you look at for fungi … stop it from reproducing or somewhat put it to sleep, but you still don’t kill it. They can still come roaring back. And when they come roaring back, they come back with resistance. So the next time you need a significant drug to kill them,” Hedrick said. “We kill it 100 percent, so there’s no way of developing resistance.”

The IBM team is working with partners to test the drug in animals, after which it will look to partner with pharmaceutical companies. Hedrick said they next plan to target tuberculosis and other traditionally difficult-to-treat infections. They are also looking into different sources of recycled plastic from which they can create the polymer.

“IBM doing this kind of work you might think kind of odd, but we’ve really moved into adjacent spaces. It is kind of common practice nowadays,” Hedrick said. “We do think outside of our normal wheelhouse.”

An infographic was removed from this post at 8:45 a.m. PT.

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  1. Margaret M. Cochran Monday, December 9, 2013

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  2. Stefan Buttigieg Monday, December 9, 2013

    I think you mean to modify the title from ‘fungal’ to ‘bacterial’. MRSA is not a fungus ;) !

    1. The polymer is able to treat a wide variety of infections, including both fungal and MRSA. While it’s stated later in the article that they plan to develop treatments for more types, I didn’t make the MRSA connection very clear and can see why the placement of the infographic was confusing. I’ve removed it to prevent further confusion. Thanks for the note.

  3. Yes well for a science article it seems the basic science here is a bit confused alright. Biofilms are produced by bacteria not fungi as far as I know. Fungi produce mycelium unless they are single celled fungi like yeast.

    Fungi and bacteria are from different kingdoms (the old classification) and are vey different. This article needs to be edited urgently.

    1. A more in-depth article on physics.org on the same research makes no mention of bacteria. The research reported in that article is all about anti-fungal properties of the polymers. Here’s the link http://phys.org/news/2013-12-recycled-plastics-disease-fighting-nanofibers.html

      And it seems some fungi can produce biofilms.

      1. Thank you for following up on your original comment, Alivation. I hope my response to Stefan answers your further questions. I learned of the MRSA connection in a conversation with and further materials provided by IBM.

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