Owing to the extensive use of antibiotics, antimicrobial drug resistance is a major health-care concern. Now, bioengineers have created a new hydrogel that proved to be effective in destroying various kinds of bacteria and fungi in initial tests. They believe that it could be used in medical device coatings and dental fillings in the future.

According to the researchers, more than 80 per cent of all human microbial infections are related to biofilm, an aggregate of cells that can easily colonise on almost any tissue surface. This is particularly challenging for infections associated with the use of medical equipment and devices.

The researchers developed a synthetic gel that is biodegradable, biocompatible and cost-effective. With a water content of over 90 per cent, the hydrogel is highly flexible and easy to adapt for a broad range of medical and consumer products to combat microbial infections. Applied to contaminated surfaces, the gel destroys the membranes of the microbes in the biofilm and eliminates harmful cells by electrostatic interaction.

Initial laboratory tests demonstrated the effectiveness of the new polymer material in targeting a number of bacteria associated with the seven most-common hospital-acquired infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Candida albicans, and preventing the pathogens from developing antibiotic resistance, they said.

Moreover, the researchers found that the mouldable gel can target multidrug-resistant biofilms on various parts of the body and surfaces without being flushed away. Once the antimicrobial function has been activated and performed, the gel will be eliminated by the body naturally, they explained.

“The soft consistency of our non-toxic materials makes them ideal for injectable and topical applications, as well as coatings and lubricants for medical devices such as catheters,” said Dr James Hedrick, advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Research.

The research was carried out by the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore in collaboration with US-based IBM Research. The institutions have been researching polymer and peptide nanoparticles as antimicrobial agents since 2007.