IBM Scientists Look to Nanotechnology to Cure Our Athlete's Foot

IBM is not just a Silicon Valley computer company. It’s a leading research think-tank that uses nanotechnology to tackle numerous problems — including athlete’s foot! According to a recent news report, IBM researchers have engineered common plastic into a nanomedicine that can attack antibiotic-resistant fungi. The nanomedicine is 1,000 times smaller than a grain of sand and zeroes-in on bad cells within the body, taking them out with deadly precision. If this breakthrough in antifungal technology takes off, it can help roughly a billion people a year.


IBM researcher Amanda Engler works with antifungal nanotechnology.
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How Does Antifungal Nanotechnology Work?

By creating a negative electrical charge on the nano-particles, scientists can create an attraction to the positively-charged fungal cells. The nano-particles attach to the fungus, rip apart their membrane walls, and destroy the cells completely. In this case, the physical assault is very targeted and happens so quickly that scientists call the nano-particles “ninja polymers.”

By contrast, existing antifungal drugs and antibiotics on the market tend to work more slowly in the body — giving the fungus a chance to develop immunity against “the enemy.” Furthermore, antifungal drugs launch their assault indiscriminately, affecting both fungal and mammalian cells — which is why oral antifungal side effects sometimes include damage to the liver, taste buds, or digestive tract.

athlete's foot fungus treatment

Researchers discover how to kill athlete’s foot fungus with technology 1,000 times smaller than a grain of sand.
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Like many great discoveries, IBM uncovered the technology by accident. They were looking into ways to etch silicon wafers used in semiconductor chips when they saw that a new type of plastic produced an electrostatic charge when chained together. By manipulating materials at the atomic level, they could form nanofibers that naturally bind together and work against meddlesome cells from the inside out.

Athlete’s Foot Fungus & Other Fungi Are a Real Problem, Says IBM

Since penicillin entered into mainstream medicine in 1947, we’ve seen a rise of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics. Superbugs like C-Diff and MRSA can grow to a colony of 1 million cells in less than a day. Roughly 2 million Americans are infected with these bugs each year — and 23,000 people die from them. Scientists hope they can help the more than 1 billion people affected by fungal infections — ranging from deadly MRSA, to contact lens fungi, to irritating athlete’s foot.

Over the last four years, IBM’s nanomedicine polymer program has really exploded. The technology hasn’t made it out of the laboratory yet, so there is much work to do before we see this athlete’s foot treatment on the market. The next step will be to embed the nanomedicine in hydrogels that can be put into treatment creams, antibacterial wipes, or consumer products like toothpaste and deodorant. Stringent regulations provide another hurdle to getting the product to market, but safety remains paramount to cultivating any new technology.

For now, people with chronic athlete’s foot infections will have to go through a topical regimen and use another type of high-tech breakthrough, the SteriShoe UV shoe sanitizer, to disinfect their footwear and prevent re-infection.

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