In 2006, IBM chemist and Research Advanced Organic Materials Scientist James Hedrick was giving a talk at an Australian polymer conference when another scientist, Yi Yan Yang, a professor at Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and IBM group leader, offered a direct challenge during the Q&A. “She stood up and said, ‘You’re wasting your time with this electronics stuff. You should be working with me,’” Hedrick told Wired Magazine. Now, this ad hoc team of scientists has converted common plastic materials like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into non-toxic materials designed to specifically target and attack fungal infections.

“Our latest breakthrough with IBM allows us to specifically target and eradicate drug-resistant and drug-sensitive fungi strains and fungal biofilms, without harming surrounding healthy cells,” Jackie Y. Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology of Singapore, stated in a press release. The research underlying this nanomedical innovation appears in Nature Communications.

Where it all began was IBM’s nanomedicine program. There, investigators applied an organic catalytic process to facilitate the transformation of PET, or waste plastic, into entirely new molecules. Through a hydrogen-bonding process, these new agents self-assemble, sticking to each other like Velcro in a polymer-like fashion to form nanofibers. These nanofibers carry a positive charge and so, based on electrostatic interaction, they can only attach to negatively-charged fungal membranes. Once it has adhered, it is able to destroy the fungal cell membrane and in the process prevents the cell from developing resistance.

“The ability of these molecules to self-assemble into nanofibers is important because unlike discrete molecules, fibers increase the local concentration of cationic charges and compound mass,” Prof. Yang stated in a press release. “This facilitates the targeting of the fungal membrane.”

Part of what makes these self-assemblies possible is IBM Research’s computational capabilities, which have been honed over the years to near-atomic levels of precision. Leveraging this power, the researchers can simulate the assemblies and predict which structural modifications might create the desired therapeutic efficacy. “As computational predictive methodologies continue to advance, we can begin to establish ground rules for self-assembly to design complex therapeutics to fight infections as well as the effective encapsulation, transport and delivery of a wide variety of cargos to their targeted diseased sites,” Hedrick stated in a press release.

In the lab, scientists discovered their antifungal chemicals killed off multiple types of fungal infections and even worked on fungal eye infections in mice. In further studies conducted in Singapore, the nanofibers eradicated more than 99.9 percent of Candida albicans, which causes the third most common blood stream infection in the U.S. In fact, every year over one billion people suffer fungal infections, which may range in severity from a skin condition, such as athlete's foot, to a life-threatening blood infection.

“A key focus of IBM’s nanomedicine research efforts is the development of novel polymers and materials for more effective treatment and prevention of various diseases,” Ying said. Once again, fortune favors the bold!

Source: Yang YY, Ying JY, Hedrick J, et al. Supramolecular high-aspect ratio assemblies with strong antifungal activity. Nature Communications. 2013.