In what is a triumph of nano-engineering, University of California, San Diego scientists have created a microscopic sponge capable of sucking up harmful chemicals from the bloodstream such as snake venom and toxins created by antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The innovative breakthrough for this small sponge is that it works for a wide variety of toxins and does not need to be formulated specifically for type of toxin involved, be it from a bee sting or a sea urchin.

The toxins that are absorbed by the nano-sponge are the type that pokes holes in cells, particularly red blood cells, in order to kill them and eventually kill the person. These small spheres are around 3,000 times smaller than a red blood cell and consist of a nanoparticle core that is coated with the membrane of a red blood cell. This coating acts as a decoy for toxins that would normally attack and cause red blood cells death and prevent the immune system from seeing them as foreign.

"This is a new way to remove toxins from the bloodstream," said Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the senior author on the study. "Instead of creating specific treatments for individual toxins, we are developing a platform that can neutralize toxins caused by a wide range of pathogens, including MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bacteria," said Zhang.

Treating someone with the nano-sponges would entail flooding the blood stream with them and would hold on to toxins strongly, not allowing them to break away and attack red blood cells.

The researchers used mice to prove that this nanotechnology based intervention could save lives. The rodents were injected with alpha-haemolysin toxin that was obtained from Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) and lyses red blood cells.

The mice that received no treatment all died from hemolysis, red blood cells essentially exploding, as expected. When the nano-sponges were injected two minutes before the toxin was injected, 89 percent of the mice survived. If the nano-molecules were injected two minutes after, the survival rate stood at 44 percent.

Analyzing the mice after the sponges had done their job, the researchers found that they had accumulated in the liver and that they were being broken down and metabolized without causing any harm to the liver.

The researchers hope to begin clinical trials in the near future.

The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology and can be found here.