SAN JOSE, Calif. – As a scientist at IBM's Almaden Research Laboratory, James Hedrick was well aware of the global problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can turn a minor scrape into a death sentence.

But the threat turned personal after a knee surgery became infected and required hospitalization. He was lucky: the medications worked and the infection cleared. His close call inspired his research team to design a new molecule, called a polymer, that targets five deadly types of drug-resistant microbes and kills them like ninja assassins. Their research, a collaboration with Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, was reported in the journal Nature Communications.

If commercialized, the polymer could boost the fight against "superbugs" that can fend off every antibiotic that doctors throw at them. An estimated 700,000 people worldwide die every year from these untreatable infections.

"It could be part of the physician's arsenal in case of a really bad infection," Hedrick said. "A last line of defense."

The research is part of IBM's effort to develop synthetic polymers for medical uses, based on a technology discovered in 2012 when exploring ways to etch silicon wafers used in semiconductor chips. In 2016, the team showed they could be used to combat viral diseases.

Antibiotics have been a critical public health tool since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, saving the lives of millions of people around the world. But the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria is reversing the miracles of these medicines. There are not nearly enough new antibiotics in development to replace those that are now ineffective, the World Health Organization said. Of an estimated 33 antibiotics being tested, only eight may be beneficial against superbugs, it said.

Dr. Susan Casey Bleasdale of the Infectious Diseases Society of America said, "This is a significant potential breakthrough in the battle against antibiotic resistance. If this proves true in clinical trials and is validated as safe and effective, this has the potential to be a game changer."