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On the left is a mature and healthy MRSA biofilm. After the hydrogel is applied, the biofilm is destroyed as seen on the right. Photo Credit: IBN

A collaboration between IBM Research and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore has taken a first step towards creating an antimicrobial hydrogel that can break through diseased biofilms and eradicate drug-resistant bacteria upon contact.

Future uses could include disinfection of medical facility surfaces, surgical and diagnostic instruments, and even – one day – medical implants.

The IBM nanomedicine polymer program, only four years old, stems from decades of materials development traditionally used for semiconductor technologies. In earlier chip development research, IBM researchers identified specific materials that, when chained together, produced an electrostatic charge that allows microscopic etching on a wafer to be done at a much smaller scale.

This newfound knowledge that characterization of materials could be manipulated at the atomic level to control their movement inspired the team to see what else they could do with these new kinds of polymer structures. They started with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The outcome of that experiment was the creation of what are now playfully known as “ninja polymers” – sticky nanostructures that move quickly to target infected cells in the body, destroy the harmful content inside, and can then disappear by biodegrading without causing damaging side effects or accumulating in the organs. As a bonus, all of this occurs without damaging healthy cells in the area.

The next step was to figure out how to apply this new capability to help fight harmful bacteria.

Through the precise tailoring of polymers, researchers were able to create macromolecules – molecular structures containing a large number of atoms – which combine water solubility, a positive charge, and biodegradability. When mixed with water and heated to normal body temperature, the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate.

This capability stems from internal reactions that create a molecular “zipper” effect. Similar to how zipper teeth link together, the short segments on the new polymers interlock, thickening the water-based solution into moldable and highly malleable hydrogels.

When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel’s positive charge attracts negatively charged microbial membranes, like stars and planets being pulled into a black hole. However, unlike other antimicrobials that target the internal machinery of bacteria to try to prevent it from replicating, this hydrogel destroys the bacteria by rupturing the bacteria’s membrane, rendering it completely unable to regenerate or spread.

The hydrogel developed by the team is comprised of more than 90 percent water, making it easy to handle and apply to surfaces. It also makes it potentially viable for eventual inclusion in applications like creams or injectable therapeutics for wound healing, implant and catheter coatings, skin infections or even orifice barriers. It is the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, potentially making it an ideal tool to combat serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients.

By preventing infections before they happen, doctors, hospitals, patients and healthcare providers may one day all benefit from improved medical outcomes and lower healthcare costs. This jointly developed hydrogel may be a key that helps open that door to the future.

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