Big Blue Breaks Into Biotech With Bacteria-Blasting Hydrogel

Researchers from IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have developed what they are calling the first antimicrobial hydrogel that is biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic.

The hydrogel, which can penetrate diseased biofilms and eradicate drug-resistant bacteria upon contact, has applications ranging from antimicrobial cleaners to therapeutic delivery agents to tissue engineering, said Amanda Engler, post-doctoral researcher for IBM Research.

How the hydrogel will eventually be used may not be the first question on the minds of those familiar with IBM’s traditional business model. Those observers may ask: what is Big Blue, iconic maker of computers and software and provider of enterprise services, doing dabbling in bio-products?

“We are materials experts,” Engler told TechNewsWorld. “It doesn’t matter what the application is. The fact is, we excel at designing materials.”

From Hardware to Healthcare

The materials in this instance are biomaterials. While attending a conference, an IBM researcher realized that some of the techniques the company has developed for semiconductors also worked with biomaterials.

It just happens that this particular material, an antimicrobial hydrogel, can be used to treat drug-resistant skin infections or break through a biofilm, Engler said.

The hydrogel was developed through the precise tailoring of polymers. From that foundation, researchers designed macromolecules, a molecular structure containing a large number of atoms combining water solubility, positive charge, and biodegradability characteristics. When mixed with water and heated to body temperature, the polymers self-assemble and swell into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate.

Driving Bacteria Insane in the Membrane

The advantage of the new hydrogel can be explained by using the example of the plaque that forms on teeth, Engler said. Brushing takes care of some of it, but most must be removed every six months at a dentist’s office.

“Biofilm grows in any moist environment like, for instance, a soda machine. A hydrogel could be spread across this surface or environment and the biofilm would disappear. It has the ability to disrupt the biofilm with a scrubbing mechanism.”

This “membrane disruption” is one reason why the development holds such potential. Most antibiotics and hydrogels target the internal machinery of bacteria to prevent replication. The way the IBM hydrogel kills bacteria, via membrane disruption, precludes the emergence of any resistance.

A Commercial Partner

IBM is currently looking for a partner or partners to help bring the hydrogel to market. The company is not entirely familiar with the necessary regulations, Engler said. Most likely it will join forces with a pharmaceutical company, but other industries might be interested.

“The applications for this are endless, from consumer products to food processing to pharmaceuticals to medical devices.”

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