If I mentioned “IBM (NYSE: IBM)” and “cutting-edge healthcare research” to you in the same sentence, you might wonder what I’d been smoking.
But as odd as this combination sounds, it’s actually true.
You see, the tech giant has teamed up with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore. And over the past four years, they’ve been conducting a study, aimed at solving a major challenge with traditional antibiotics.
Here’s the deal…
Antibiotics vs. Bacteria: The Grudge Match That Science is Finally Solving
When you have a particularly nasty disease or infection, one course of treatment is to prescribe antibiotics to cure it.
Thing is, though, current antibiotic treatments leave the cell walls of bacteria intact. This allows bacteria to evolve and develop a resistance to the treatment. And by building resistance to a drug, these bacteria can morph into a more dangerous version.
As the head of IBM’s research, James Hedrick says, “This whole issue of emerging resistance of antibiotics is going to be a huge problem in the foreseeable future. I think we can start to see it now with the number of infections, associated deaths and healthcare costs.”
Take the MRSA outbreak in 2005, for example. It killed nearly 19,000 Americans – more than the AIDS virus did that year.
But it’s not just MRSA we have to worry about. Heck, Harvard researchers discovered hundreds of different bacteria in soil that literally eat antibiotics for breakfast.
Luckily, IBM and IBN may have developed the solution…
Semiconductors Jump from Electronics to Medicine
“A nanomedicine breakthrough in which new types of polymers were shown to physically detect and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like MRSA.”
That’s according to a press release from IBM and IBN. Let’s put that in plain English: The two companies have created a nano-sized material that can track down and annihilate diseases previously thought to be bulletproof.
But where does a tech company like IBM fit in?
In short, IBM has discovered a way of shrinking semiconductors by using a polymer that, once placed under suitable conditions, can assemble itself into a new structure. And the cool thing is, researchers have been able to apply the same polymer found in IBM’s engineering to create nanoparticles to use as an antibiotic treatment.
Here’s how it works…
“Ninja Particles” Play a Disease-Zapping Game of Search-and-Destroy
Once these nanoparticles – which researchers have dubbed “ninja particles” – are injected into the body, they self-assemble into a new structure. And because it’s magnetically attracted to bacteria, it’s able to hunt it down with heat-seeking accuracy.
Most importantly, unlike traditional antibiotics, it breaks through bacterial cell walls. That way, bacteria can’t evolve and develop a resistance to the treatment. Plus, the nanoparticles only target infected areas, leaving healthy cells untouched.
Sounds like a win-win right? But it gets better.
Unlike most polymer-based antibiotics, these nanoparticles are biodegradable. So instead of building up in the body’s organs, they’re naturally eliminated. And because they can either be injected or applied topically to the skin (for example, in everyday products like soap or hand sanitizer to treat infections or wounds), the potential market is massive.
Laying Claim to More Than Half of a $138 Billion Market
Talk about a great time to create a game-changing antibiotic. In 2009, the global market for infectious disease treatment was $90.4 billion. But by 2014, it’s projected to swell to $138 billon.
Given that 53% of that market share belongs to antibiotic treatments, IBM’s decision to branch out into biotech is about to pay off big time.
IBM and IBN have already filed six U.S. patent applications and published 21 papers in prestigious scientific journals on their research. Even better, the materials to develop the treatment are cheap, too.
And once this treatment goes mainstream, this tech-healthcare hybrid model could completely change the face of medical research.
As Hedrick states, “This breakthrough… represents another example of how scientists are expanding beyond traditional boundaries by applying lessons learned from other research fields. Our combined materials development and bioengineering expertise enabled us to discover a new way to potentially treat infectious diseases.”