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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Biofilms

Biofilms are structured communities of microorganisms that attach to surfaces and exert a pervasive impact across a range of sectors. Detrimental biofilms can incur significant costs to industry in terms of biofouling and corrosion, and in healthcare as a cause of antimicrobial resistance, persistent infections, and the failure of medical interventions.  However, opportunities to exploit beneficial biofilms also exist, for example in microbial fuel cells, bioconversion processes such as waste-water treatment and bioremediation. Our researchers are engaged in the many opportunities and research challenges that lie in understanding how best to manipulate the activity of biofilms across a range of sectors.

National Biofilms Innovation Centre
National Biofilms Innovation Centre

Overview of Biofilms

Scientists across the University in areas such as Medicine, Chemistry, Computational Science, Health Sciences and Engineering are working together to make advances in biofilm research. With an interdisciplinary and translational approach, our discoveries are making their way from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside and making a positive impact in healthcare.

Biofilms are a collective of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on many different surfaces and therefore impact on many different aspects of society. They are central to some of the most urgent global challenges including food and water security, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), infections disease and contamination, energy losses and damage in the food industry and consumer sector.

The University has a large and interdisciplinary group of biofilm academics and researchers who are conducting projects across a range of scales and fields of application, including the understanding of the molecular ecology and genetic make-up of biofilms; how biofilms interact within different environments and the development of new therapies that will overcome antibiotic tolerance caused by biofilms.

Our expertise has led to the formation of the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC), led by the University of Southampton in partnership with the Universities of Liverpool, Nottingham and Edinburgh.  Supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Innovate UK and the Hartree Centre, and with a wider consortium of 41 additional research organisations and more than 100 companies, the NBIC represents a £26m commitment that brings the best of UK biofilm research together with the industrial sectors to accelerate the adoption of new technologies into live products and services.

Key words:

Antibiotics, Antimicrobial Resistance, Biofilms, Bubbles, Catheters, Cystic Fibrosis, Dispersal, Infection, Interdisciplinary, Microbiology, Surface.  National Biofilms Innovation Centre

Please see a selection of postgraduate courses related to this subject area below. 

For the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Southampton, please visit our courses webpages:  https://www.southampton.ac.uk/courses.page

PhD - Biological Sciences

Our mission is to educate tomorrow's biological scientists in an environment at the forefront of research and theory.

PhD Programme - Medicine

Full and part-time PhDs in a broad range of specialist areas in Medicine, including biomedicine, research in clinical environments and population-based statistical studies.

Integrated PhD Biomedical Science

Our four year Integrated PhD in Biomedical Science - Immunity and Infection degree has been designed to produce the next generation of leaders in immunity and infection research

MSc Global Health

This research-led, interdisciplinary degree programme designed to provide training on the principles, methods & research skills necessary to understand, interpret & solve critical global health challenges.

MSc Biomedical Engineering

This masters course will equip you with the specialist knowledge, expertise and skills to integrate biology and medicine with engineering to solve problems related to living systems.

Image credit: Dr Dario Carugo
Bubbles for Biofilms

Bubbles for Biofilms

Our researchers are using ultrasound to control biofilm development.  Ultrasound responsive compounds provide a dynamic means of drug delivery to specific locations at specific times. Southampton scientists are already using this in regenerative medicine.

Our interdisciplinary teams are now using ultrasound mediated therapies for the treatment of biofilms in chronic wounds to enhance treatment effectiveness.

We have already shown that ultrasound delivery improves antibiotic treatment of Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms, which are commonly found in wounds, the urinary tract and the respiratory tract. We are now exploring the use of ultrasound-responsive microbubbles and nano-droplets, which can be coupled with biologically active compounds such as nitric oxide. This will allow us to breakdown the biofilm structure, in both a physical and biological manner. We are also working to improve the targeting of these agents to biofilms.

One of the most important aspects of this work is achieving a viable clinical translation; by bringing together biomedical engineers, medical microbiologists and clinicians, we aim to significantly improve treatment outcomes, for patients afflicted with chronic wounds such as diabetic foot ulcers.

Contacts: Mr Gareth LuTheryn, Dr Dario CarugoProf Jeremy Webb

Image credit: Dr Sandra Wilks
Image credit: Dr Sandra Wilks

Cleaning catheters

As part of a wider programme of research around the role of biofilms on medical device contamination and risk to infection, we are also looking at improved cleaning techniques and how to reduce single-use plastics. Currently, intermittent catheters (IC) are licensed as single-use in the UK, costing the NHS around £90 million annually, with over 50,000 users.

Our researchers across Health Sciences are working with industry partners to assess and develop ways of effectively cleaning catheters allowing the possibility for reuse. This would enable greater choice for IC users, providing flexibility when travelling and away from home, reducing cost and, importantly, reducing the environmental impact of large amounts of plastic waste.

We have been evaluating a new biocide, developed by JVS Products, that has shown to have a strong effect against a range of fungal, bacterial and viral pathogens. Through a two-phase project, we have provided a laboratory analysis of the effectiveness of the JVS Products biocide on a range of different uropathogens allowing optimisation of concentration and efficacy. Working with catheter users, we have been developing the product further and are completing patient testing. This will enable robust evaluation of the product, ensuring it provides an effective, reliable and suitable option for IC users. 

Contacts: Dr Sandra Wilks Prof Mandy Fader
 

Tackling biofilms in Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is the most common fatal genetic condition in the UK and can prevent the body’s natural defence system from clearing bacteria and other pathogens from the lungs. For individuals with CF, pulmonary infections pose an immense therapeutic burden due to the formation of biofilms. Biofilms have an increased tolerance to antimicrobials, so despite the aggressive use of antibiotics, infections are recurrent and often become chronic. Persist infections cause continuous inflammation; irreversible lung damage and respiratory failure and so new treatment options are desperately required. 

Our researchers in Biological Sciences are working in collaboration with chemists in Australia to develop and investigate the use of novel nitric oxide-releasing prodrugs as an alternative therapeutic option for CF patients. These prodrugs have been designed to selectively release nitric oxide at the site of the biofilm, a molecule that has previously been shown to disperse biofilms.

Working with clinicians and patients, our teams have shown that the first-generation of these prodrugs are effective in dispersing biofilms formed by Pseudomonas aeruginosa and enhance the effectiveness of a common CF antibiotics. Our research has expanded, and further chemical modification of these prodrugs has led to the development of a second-generation of agents with dual-functionality, which can both disperse biofilms, and directly kill bacterial cells, negating the need for a second antibiotic.

This exciting research is at the initial stages of the drug development process, and the promising pre-clinical data provides support that these novel nitric oxide-releasing prodrugs could benefit individuals with CF.

Contact: Miss Odel Soren

AMR evolution

The threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the world’s most pressing health challenges and has been described as something that could put medicine back to the “dark ages”.  Bacteria living in biofilms can tolerate much higher antibiotic concentrations compared to free-living bacteria and therefore can survive longer. This allows conditions like cystic fibrosis to take hold in patients to devastating effects. Therefore, understanding antimicrobial evolution in biofilms is imperative in the identification of new treatments that can reduce the burden on antibiotics.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an important opportunistic pathogen responsible for causing a large variety of hospital-acquired infections. It possesses multiple mechanisms that contribute towards the evolution of multi-drug resistant strains, with its ability to form biofilms playing a key role.

Scientists across the University are leading an international consortium that is investigating how P. aeruginosa adapts during biofilm formation on surfaces coated with antimicrobials, how AMR mutations are acquired and evolve within mature biofilms, and how population dynamics within biofilms affect the transmission of AMR. With funding from the Medical research Council, the research addresses the hypothesis that understanding the contribution of biofilms to AMR will lead to the development of novel antimicrobial strategies and medical devices that are more effective in preventing biofilm-associated infection and AMR.

This research brings together an interdisciplinary team of medical microbiologists, engineers, bioinformaticians and clinicians that can provide a synergy of leading laboratory, clinical and translational research across Europe to ensure the best chance of developing novel and successful interventions and therapeutic outcomes.

Contacts: Dr Ray Allan
 

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