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Nanomachines will save us from the new medical Middle Ages
April 5, 2011 5:39 PM   Subscribe

IBM researchers working on nanoparticles to destroy drug-resistant bacteria Hot on the heels of a report on the horrific threat of antibiotics-resistant bacteria, this article highlights one possible solution- using polymers that would attack bacteria membranes, instead of drugs.

The IBM researchers believe the drug could be injected intravenously to treat people with life-threatening infections. Or it could be made into a gel that could be applied to wounds to treat or prevent infection.

Mass Effect is ahead of its time.
posted by Apocryphon (21 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
im still firmly in the bill joy camp
posted by lslelel at 5:46 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This work is tremendously preliminary to even be speaking about this as a "drug". It looks like they've done some nice synthetic polymer chemistry, but as to whether this is a remotely appropriate material to be "injected intravenously".... who knows? Probably not, based on experience.

I really hate this kind of science-by-press-release. Plenty of groups are working on membrane-lytic approaches to antibacterials, and a lot of them are much further along than this work.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:49 PM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Pardon my ignorance, but how is a polymer that is injected into the bloodstream to treat an illness not a drug?
posted by idiopath at 5:50 PM on April 5, 2011


No one has injected this into anyone's blood stream to treat any illnesses. It's proposed as a drug, or a prospective drug, but the work is super-preliminary.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:54 PM on April 5, 2011


Here's a link to the actual article in Nature Chemistry for those who have subscription access.

I'm not familiar with this field, and science by press release is never a good idea, but Nature Chemistry is a pretty highly respected journal. I hope the reviewers would think to google around for previous work.

(Although, apparently Science reviewers don't know much about Arsenic chemistry, so I could be very wrong)

Maybe mr_roboto could give us a summary of the other work going on in this area?
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 6:05 PM on April 5, 2011


Pardon my ignorance, but how is a polymer that is injected into the bloodstream to treat an illness not a drug?

Because we have not yet gotten through our heads that there is no such thing as elan vital, so if you are a material scientist working with nanomachines (non-life) that is somehow fundamentally different than doctors working with biochemicals and cells (life).

See also: brain as a biological organ, denial of
posted by DU at 6:15 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Weirdly enough I just finished Oryx and Crake today.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:22 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and another thing. This word "nanomachines". What have been constructed here are micelles; the same type of nanostructures that form when you add the dish detergent to the hot water in the sink.

If this is a machine, I'm a dinosaur.

The bulk of work in this field has looked at membrane disrupting peptides. You can pull up about 33,000 hits on google scholar searching for "membrane lytic peptides antibiotic". There's a ton of work with polymers, too, though. "Amphiphilic polymer antibiotic" would be a good search string.

Again, this synthetic chemistry is just great, which is presumably why this was published in a chemistry journal. The application claims are overblown at this point.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:29 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Because we have not yet gotten through our heads that there is no such thing as elan vital, so if you are a material scientist working with nanomachines (non-life) that is somehow fundamentally different than doctors working with biochemicals and cells (life).

See also: brain as a biological organ, denial of


"Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!"
posted by kuatto at 7:03 PM on April 5, 2011


Chemistry has _always_ been a form of nano-engineering, but how similar are the molecules created via what we refer to as nanotech, versus the molecules created via either organic chemistry, or biological tinkering?
posted by effugas at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2011


I'm all for polymers that don't attack drugs, but attack bacterial membranes instead.
posted by smcameron at 7:59 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Allen says the nanoparticles didn't interact with human blood cells because their electrical charge is significantly greater than that of bacterial cells."

Our bodies already make powerful compounds that are selective along the same principle, and pathogens already have ways around it. I would guess they'll likely get very different results if they ever get around to testing it on recent clinical isolates from otherwise healthy patients.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:21 PM on April 5, 2011


Remember how science reporting works guys!

The best reported activities in the paper are about 4.3 micromolar (uM). This is pretty low, and definitely within range of some of the weaker antibiotics.

Unfortunately, this is a polymer, and weighs about 7000g/mol. For comparison, good old penicillin G weighs 334g/mol. Anything that you want to be orally absorbed (ie. taken as a pill, not injected into your veins), needs to weigh less than 500g/mol, 700g/mol at the extreme edge. To make matters worse, membrane targeting molecules are notorious for being completely inactivated by hydrophobic proteins such as human serum albumin (the most common protein in our blood). As a result, this polymer is probably going to be much less active in the body, meaning even larger doses.

When you get that heavy the size of the dose has to increase too. A tiny pill is fine for extremely effective agents like human hormones or LSD. But when you've got a weakly active antimicrobial polymer? You can't put that sucker into an IV, and your pill is going to look like a Halloween style chocolate bar, at best.

So ya, very nice preliminary results (the low rate of red blood cell lysis in particular is very nice, most antimicrobial peptides tear our cells to shreds), but I wouuldn't celebrate yet.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:37 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and we already have a gel that can be applied to wounds to prevent or treat infection. It's called neosporin. First patented in 1957.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:40 PM on April 5, 2011


I'm glad we're at least looking at options beyond phage therapy and nothing.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:09 PM on April 5, 2011


This same topic came up on reddit yesterday.
Linky for the full article.

Probably one of reddits finer moments, as the thread is full of people who are involved in similar research answering questions.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:01 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm glad we're at least looking at options beyond phage therapy and nothing.

It would be cool if there were more articles about scientists trying to find solutions about seemingly unsolvable problems that threaten the future of humanity.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:04 PM on April 5, 2011


Distinguishing between the bacteria we want and the bacteria we don't want, may prove to be a difficult problem.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:56 PM on April 5, 2011


Yes...this is what the nano particles want. They want inside of us. Flash forward 50 years, and we are all cyborg.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:07 AM on April 6, 2011


It would be cool if there were more articles about scientists trying to find solutions about seemingly unsolvable problems that threaten the future of humanity.

Article writers don't see hype in the trenches.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:09 AM on April 6, 2011


Distinguishing between the bacteria we want and the bacteria we don't want, may prove to be a difficult problem.

Kill them all; God will know his own.
posted by Justinian at 10:18 AM on April 6, 2011


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