Researchers from IBM (NYSE: IBM) and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology revealed today an antimicrobial hydrogel that can break through diseased biofilms and completely eradicate drug-resistant bacteria upon contact. The synthetic hydrogel, which forms spontaneously when heated to body temperature, is the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic, making it an ideal tool to combat serious health hazards facing hospital workers, visitors and patients.
Traditionally used for disinfecting various surfaces, antimicrobials can be found in traditional household items like alcohol and bleach. However, moving from countertops to treating drug resistant skin infections or infectious diseases in the body are proving to be more challenging as conventional antibiotics become less effective and many household surface disinfectants are not suitable for biological applications.
IBM Research and its collaborators developed a remoldable synthetic antimicrobial hydrogel, comprised of more than 90% water, which, if commercialized, is ideal for applications like creams or injectable therapeutics for wound healing, implant and catheter coatings, skin infections or even orifice barriers.
Able to colonize on almost any tissue or surface, microbial biofilms - which are adhesive groupings of diseased cells present in 80% of all infections - persist at various sites in the human body, especially in association with medical equipment and devices. They contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections, which are among the top five leading causes of death in the United States and account for up to $11 billion in healthcare spending each year.
Despite advanced sterilization and aseptic techniques, infections associated with medical devices have not been eradicated. This is due, in part, to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. According to the CDC, antibiotic drug resistance in the U.S. costs an estimated $20 billion a year in healthcare costs as well as 8 million additional days spent in the hospital.
Through the precise tailoring of polymers, researchers designed macromolecules, a molecular structure containing a large number of atoms, which combine water solubility, positive charge, and biodegradability characteristics. When mixed with water and heated to body temperature the polymers self-assemble, swelling into a synthetic gel that is easy to manipulate. This highly desirable capability stems from self-associative interactions that create a "molecular zipper" effect. Analogous to how zipper teeth link together, the short segments on the new polymers also interlock, thickening the water-based solution into re-moldable and compliant hydrogels. Since they exhibit many of the characteristics of water-soluble polymers without being freely dissolved, such materials can remain in place under physiological conditions while still demonstrating antimicrobial activity.