IBM Research: The Semiconductor Industry’s Nanotechnology Can Be Nanomedicine

IBM wants to go a step beyond traditional antibiotics to treat MRSA and other infectious diseases.


Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a nasty skin infection often picked up at hospitals that can lead to pneumonia and blood stream infections if left untreated. It can be scarily difficult to control because of its antibiotic resistance. Now IBM wants to go a step beyond traditional antibiotics to treat MRSA and other infectious diseases–by using nanotechnology from the semiconductor industry.

IBM researchers announced recently that they have figured out how to fashion polymers made out of nanomaterials that have a magnetic attraction to infected cells. This marks the first time that researchers have been able to develop a
polymer out of nanomaterials that is both biocompatible and
biodegradable–which means it can be used in the body to go after, find,
and kill nasty microorganisms. Once an infected cell has been targeted by  these biodegradable molecules, it explodes and all of its “guts” spill out, leaving nearby cells unharmed.

In comparison, antibiotics go through the cell membrane and do damage from inside the spill. “With this mechanism, you don’t worry about the inner workings of cell machinery. You just bust through the membrane and tear a hole in it,” says Robert Allen, Senior Manager of the Advanced Materials Chemistry Department at IBM Research. 

Previously IBM researchers figured out how to develop metal-free polymers because, explains Allen, “you don’t want even parts per billion levels of metal to impact things like electrical properties.” This new form of polymerization, now used commercially in the semiconductor industry, soon led IBM to explore how polymers could be used in nanomedicine.

IBM’s discovery is still in the research stages, but MRSA-combatting nanostructures could one day be injected into the body, transferred topically by soap, or even used in mouthwash. Beyond that, there’s no telling where nanomedicine could go. One possibility: cancer-fighting nanomedicine with minimal side effects. “We’re looking at how materials expertise can play into [drug] delivery into cancer agents,” says Allen.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more