12/16/2013 07:26 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

How 'Ninjas' Are Fighting Superbugs

"Ninjas" are coming to the rescue in the fight against superbugs.

Researchers at IBM have developed materials one thousand times smaller than a grain of sand that attack antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases by tracking them down in the body and stealthily ripping through the outer wall of their cells, spilling out their contents and causing them to drop dead. These breakthrough materials in nanomedicine, dubbed "ninja particles," are miniscule, non-toxic structures that biodegrade after accomplishing their mission so they don't build up in our bodies.

It's the kind of attack that this frightening wave of new bugs can't adapt to -- unlike antibiotics.

And this discovery took place not a minute too soon. The dramatic rise in antibiotic resistance has prompted concern that we may face a future where people die from once-curable infections. Each year, more than 23,000 Americans die from superbugs, such as the notorious MRSA infection, while more than two million Americans fall ill, according to the CDC.

Our approach is "techie" through and through. To create the ninja particles, we applied some of the same principles we're using to shrink semiconductor manufacturing to nanoscale level. IBM researchers developed nanoscale polymer specks that can be tailored to a whole array of new uses, whether to create sterile surfaces in hospitals and restaurants or even to help find a new cure for athlete's foot.

For combating diseases, the polymers work as follows: once they come into contact with water or are in the body, they're designed to self assemble into a new structure that -- just like a magnet -- is physically attracted to infected cells and attacks them by piercing their walls. The polymers are designed to target the infected cells based on particular electrostatic interactions. By selectively killing difficult-to-treat bacteria, they leave the surrounding healthy cells untouched.

This armor-piercing attack is game-changing in two ways: Traditional antibiotics leave the cell wall and membrane of bugs largely undamaged, giving them a chance to evolve and become drug resistant. At the same time, the high doses of antibiotics needed to kill an infection also destroy a good number of the healthy red blood cells we need to combat the diseased ones.

And the polymers can help put a stop to the proliferation of anti-bacterial products, from hand wipes to socks, that have had a hand in bringing about the rise of superbugs and, paradoxically, making us less safe.

An added bonus is that these ninja particles are green. Because they're made by taking everyday plastic bottles, we are finding a really important use for them. Instead of making a recycled park bench made out of old plastic bottles, we can now create armies of bug-fighting ninjas.

Besides their broad application to hospitals during operations as gels, wipes or special coatings, the ninja particles could be used to replace some of the antifungal and antibiotic chemicals -- such as formaldehyde -- that, though in wide use by consumer goods, food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical makers, have raised health concerns or even been found to be carcinogenic.

These kinds of uses are still years away, but the ninja particles are already off to a promising start and are on their way to taking on superbugs.

To learn more about ninja polymers, click here.