As a scientist at IBM’s Almaden Research Laboratory, James Hedrick was well aware of the global problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can turn a minor scrape into a death sentence.
But the threat turned personal after he had routine knee surgery. Sudden excruciating pain signaled infection, demanding emergency hospitalization. Hedrick was lucky: the medications worked, the infection cleared and he went home eight days later.
Hedrick’s close call inspired his research team to design a new molecule, called a polymer, that targets five deadly types of drug-resistant microbes and kills them like ninja assassins.Their research, a collaboration with Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, was reported this week in the journal Nature Communications.
If commercialized, the polymer could boost the fight against “superbugs” that can fend off every antibiotic that doctors throw at them. An estimated 700,000 people worldwide die every year from these untreatable infections.
“It could be part of the physician’s arsenal in case of a really bad infection,” said Hedrick. “A last line of defense.”
The research is part of IBM’s ongoing effort to develop synthetic polymers for medical uses, based on a technology discovered in 2012 when exploring new ways to etch silicon wafers used in semiconductor chips. In 2016, the team showed they could be used to combat deadly viral diseases.
Hedrick and his team have extensive experience with synthetic polymers, long repeating chains of connected molecules that can be found in pretty much everything around us, including plastic trash bags, paints, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, adhesives and computers.
It was at a conference about polymers, in fact, when Hedrick felt his knee ache. He had recently undergone successful surgical repair of his knee cap after a basketball injury, and it had been feeling fine. He was returning home from Hawaii when the pain turned awful.
“My leg was freezing up and was extraordinarily painful,” he recalled. “On the way to the airport, I went to the hospital. They confiscated my ticket, told me I’d have surgery in a few hours. I was there eight days.”