IBM researchers discover how to treat drug-resistant fungal infections with recycled plastic

Sometimes scientific breakthroughs appear where they are least expected.

IBM (s ibm) lead scientist Jim Hedrick and his colleagues were working on a computer chip when they developed a custom polymer. They realized that along with meeting their needs for the chip, it was also biocompatible and biodegradable, making it an excellent medical candidate. They could also create the polymer by breaking down recycled plastic bottles. They published their work today in Nature Communications (subscription required).

The team began thinking about applications and settled on creating a new kind of treatment for fungal infections.

“We noticed that in the antifungal space there was not much work going on and the drugs that were available were starting to develop resistance,” Hedrick said. “You don’t think about fungi that much, but people who are immune compromised … they are very susceptible toward fungal infections.”

From locker room floors to bus seats, we subject ourselves to fungi cells constantly. An infection can range from an annoying case of athlete’s foot to a life-threatening invasion for someone who has been diagnosed with AIDS. A fungal infection can become even more worrisome when the cells exhibit drug resistance, reducing options for medical treatment.


The IBM polymer works in two ways. Previous antifungals had trouble targeting fungi cells because they are very similar to mammal cells. The polymer takes advantage of fungi cells’ slight negative charge to target them more accurately. Then it explodes the cells’ membrane, killing it. The researchers were also surprised to find the polymer destroyed biofilms: a nasty goop that fungi can form inside the body.

“Most of the medicines you look at for fungi … stop it from reproducing or somewhat put it to sleep, but you still don’t kill it. They can still come roaring back. And when they come roaring back, they come back with resistance. So the next time you need a significant drug to kill them,” Hedrick said. “We kill it 100 percent, so there’s no way of developing resistance.”

The IBM team is working with partners to test the drug in animals, after which it will look to partner with pharmaceutical companies. Hedrick said they next plan to target tuberculosis and other traditionally difficult-to-treat infections. They are also looking into different sources of recycled plastic from which they can create the polymer.

“IBM doing this kind of work you might think kind of odd, but we’ve really moved into adjacent spaces. It is kind of common practice nowadays,” Hedrick said. “We do think outside of our normal wheelhouse.”


An infographic was removed from this post at 8:45 a.m. PT.