Saturday, April 9, 2011

IBM Helps in Fight against MRSA

A great e-letter sent out by K-House news (April 5, 2011), on IBM's development of tiny, degradable plastic "nano-particles" that tear down the walls of MRSA cells. Here is their article:

When superbugs attack, get out the plastic nano-armies. Engineers in San Jose, California have created a new form of antibiotic out of manmade nano-particles 50,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. According to researchers, these microscopic soldiers of germ warfare are able to search out and destroy even the scariest of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When their job of slaughtering the bacterial enemy is finished, the nano-particles harmlessly biodegrade away.

Misuse of standard antibiotics has led to the rise of drug-resistant "super" bacteria. If antibiotics don't quite kill off all the bacteria in their host, the most drug-resistant ones are left to reproduce after their kind, producing virulent strains that refuse to die through normal treatment. Typical drugs also kill the beneficial bacteria that bodies need to function well.

Bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infected at least 94,360 people in 2005, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. About 18,650 died during their hospital stays due to this serious staph infection that has been busily defying common antibiotics.

IBM is behind a technology to use nano-particles to take over where antibiotic drugs have failed. These newly developed plastic nanoparticles use a different method of attack, as reported in this week's issue of Nature Chemistry. The engineers have given the nano-particles a charge so that they are attracted to oppositely charged bacteria. In this way, they can be used to target infected cells, reportedly eradicating bacteria like MRSA while leaving beneficial bacteria alone.

According to the IBM researchers, these nano-particles also take a different approach to killing the bacteria. Rather than attacking the bacterial DNA, these brutal plastic machetes beat down the cell walls, destroying the bacteria from the outside-in.

"These are designed to slice the cell membrane, to rip the membrane up and eliminate the contents," explains James Hedrick, advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Almaden Research Center. "It's kind of like the way a virus would work - a virus drills a pore, empties the contents and hijacks it. This is drilling in little holes, and all the contents leak out."

IBM's technology "goes outside the scheme of current antibiotics to something that physically destroys bacteria", said Mario Raviglione, chief of the World Health Organisation's Stop TB department. "If this is proven to work in humans, it will simply revolutionize the way we deal with antimicrobial treatment."

While the technology sounds promising, it has yet to be tested on humans. IBM declares that the nano-particles harmlessly degrade into an "innocuous byproduct." It is encouraging that these microscopic machines can attack harmful bacteria without any threat that they themselves will reproduce or remain forever in the blood stream. Yet, a great deal of testing needs to be done to make sure that the nano-particles only attack the cells of the organisms they are intended to attack.

Humankind continually presses upward in its technological advances, offering promises of wonder cures. An awareness of possible unforeseen results needs to keep us cautious in our biotech race.

The article provides several links about this story, and here is a good one. One of the statistics it mentions is that 25,000 people in the European Union are dying each year from infections like MRSA! Let's hope that this technology really works.


Second, Here is another article on the "super-bug" MRSA-like infection known as NDM-1 (named for New Delhi metallobeta-lactamase, because it is widespread in New Delhi, India). The World Health Organization (WHO) called for action in fighting NDM-1 and warns that it is posing a global health risk. Currently, it is spreading through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Great Britain. New research published Thursday in a U.K. medical publication shows the source of NDM-1 is widespread in sewage and drinking water outside the hospital environment in Delhi, India, circulating because of sewage contamination in bacteria that inhabit drains and tap water.

How serious are drug-resistant infections? The article cites statistics that in the US, hospital-acquired, drug-resistant bacterial infections kill 63,000 patients each year and cost $34 billion. Wikipedia reports that for a study done on New Delhi water samples studied, 20 strains of bacteria were found to contain NDM-1 gene in 51 out of 171 seepage samples and 2 out of 50 tap water samples. Although there hasn't been many deaths yet from NDM-1, this is one to keep your eyes on.

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