IBM Research’s Jim Hedrick has a great job. His work on polymers — those repeating chains of macromolecules that make up most things in our world, like the computer or phone you’re reading this on — has led to the creation of substances with Marvel Comics-worthy descriptors. There’s the self-healing, Wolverine-like substance that arose from a recycled water bottle and something called “ninja particles” that’ll advance the reality of nanomedicine. Both discoveries will inevitably make their way into consumer products in the near future, but it’s his team’s progress on nanomedicine that Hedrick discussed during my visit to IBM Research’s sprawling Almaden lab in San Jose, California.
The inspiration for IBM’s foray into nanomedicine is twofold: our growing resistance to antibiotics and the incidence of medical-implant rejection by the human body. With this in mind, Hedrick and his team, leveraging IBM’s background in semiconductor research, developed synthetic polymers that mimic the immune system. Using a simple charge, these resultant polymers are capable of hunting down and clinging to specific microbes throughout the body. And, once attached, cause those microbes to rupture as if they’d been hit by an explosive shuriken or ninja star — hence, the name.