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IBM Researchers Work on New Ways to Combat Life-Threatening Bacteria

Antibiotics are largely positive, helping people fight off potentially life-threatening infections. But the unfortunate trade-off to their continued and ubiquitous use is the bacteria they’re designed to attack and destroy develops immunity to the treatment. The results are so-called “superbugs” that evolve beyond traditional treatments. Combating them is an uphill battle.

Researchers across the globe are attempting to tackle this issue—and some of IBM’s best are among them. Working with several public and private organizations, IBM researchers such as James Hedrick, research staff member with the IBM Research-Almaden lab outside San Jose, Calif., are taking a different approach to fighting bacteria, using the company’s extensive background in semiconductor technology to create nanostructures that destroy bacteria by ripping through cell walls and membranes. It’s a fundamentally different mode of attack compared to traditional antibiotics.

Although this research hasn’t been released yet, it holds great promise, from staving off deadly staph infections to potential preventive use in toothpastes and bandages. And as Hedrick notes, it may be the start to removing the “super” from superbugs.

Q. Why are issues regarding antibiotics becoming increasingly important?

A. Many strains of bacteria are slowly becoming resistant to antibiotics. You may have heard of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), which is pervasive in hospitals, gyms, schools and all sorts of other places. MRSA infections on a hip replacement, an artificial knee, et cetera, can cause about $50,000 worth of treatment per infected patient and sometimes can be lethal. It can be very, very bad—and it’s becoming resistant to typical treatments.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at

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