HOW IBM IS USING NANOTECHNOLOGY TO TACKLE MRSA AND HIV
The nanomedicine group’s first big breakthrough was the creation of polymer-based nanoparticles that can target and kill MRSA, a potentially deadly drug-resistant bacterium. The nanoparticles engineered by the IBM–Singapore team–dubbed “ninja particles”–use electrostatic attraction to target infected cells. Because the polymers used to create ninja particles are biodegradable, they pass out of the body once they’ve done their job. While the particles haven’t yet been submitted for FDA approval, IBM is working with pharmaceutical, consumer-products, and medical-device companies to explore applications.
In the past year, the pace of innovation has accelerated. The Hedrick-Yang group published a paper in December that describes a method for breaking down PET–the stuff plastic bottles are made of–and reconstructing it into a nanofiber that can kill fungal infections on contact. In the lab, these nanofibers were more effective in fewer doses than conventional antifungal drugs, in addition to being nontoxic and biodegradable. Since the polymers used in both chip manufacture and nanomedicine are generally derived from petroleum, the ability to instead start from recycled material could reduce industrial consumption of oil and gas while providing a new use for plastic waste.
Hedrick and his partners have also made headway in drug delivery, coaxing nanoparticles to self-assemble into a gel-like material that can encapsulate molecules of a drug and release them at a particular location in the body over an extended period of time. When the Singapore team encapsulated the breast cancer drug Herceptininto the hydrogel and injected it into animals, their tumors shrank more than 75%, and the drug remained active and effective in the bloodstream for a month after a single injection. Tumors in animals given a regular IV injection of the drug didn’t shrink at all, according to results published in November 2013.
Potential medical and consumer applications for materials coming out of the nanomedicine program are practically limitless: they could be injected; applied as a topical gel to treat wounds and infections; included in products such as soap, hand sanitizer, and shampoo; or applied as a germ-fighting coating on everything from medical devices to cutting boards and toothbrushes. Before they can be commercialized, all of these products will require approval by either the EPA or FDA, so rather than bring products to market on its own, IBM will aim to collaborate with partners that have more regulatory and manufacturing expertise. “Increasingly, in these nontraditional, interdisciplinary spaces, no one has all the capabilities,” says Narayan. “As we jointly develop [intellectual property], there will be all kinds of royalty and other revenue streams coming out.” The first product to make it out of the lab will most likely be an antimicrobial material to clean surfaces in hospitals.
For Hedrick, pivoting from his comfort zone in silicon hardware has been a learning process. “When I first started this, we went to some major pharma companies, and I got my backside handed to me pretty quick,” he says. “Now I feel very comfortable going into a room with scientists and executives and rattling off proteins and numbers and names. A lot of the time [when he’s not in meetings], though–I kid you not–I have Wikipedia open on my phone.”
Inspired in part by the recent launch of an IBM Research lab in Africa, Hedrick is excited about deploying nanomaterials to fight illnesses that disproportionately afflict the region, including tuberculosis, dengue fever, and HIV. He also hopes to look at ways to use nanocontainers to deliver drugs across the blood-brain barrier–a major challenge in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “Even three years ago, I would have been surprised by what we’ve been able to accomplish so far,” he says. “IBM Research has given us significant latitude and freedom. Because they’ve always kept the lights on, we’re able to address these grand challenges in a unique way.”