Montana State University

Industry and MSU biofilm experts to weigh in on chronic infections during meeting

July 11, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Montana State University microbiology professor Matthew Fields, left, and doctoral student Lauren Franco study biofilm-related samples in Fields' lab. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – For Brett Baker, president and CEO of Bozeman-based Microbion Corporation, the interplay of industry and academic science showcased by Montana State University’s Center for Biofilm Engineering is a critical ingredient in the development of new medical technology, particularly in one area of human health – biofilm-related infections.

“I really see it as a matter of saving lives, considering we have close to 100,000 people dying each year in the U.S. from infections they acquired in a hospital environment, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control 2013 report, over 23,000 each year die from antibiotic-resistant infections,” said Baker, who will be attending the CBE meeting of industrial associates and scientists in Bozeman this week.

CBE’s biannual meetings bring members from CBE’s Industrial Associates program, which includes 33 companies, many of which are Fortune 500 companies, together with dozens of MSU faculty and students to discuss the latest science regarding biofilms.

Biofilms are communities of bacteria that mount defenses and attach to surfaces, making them more resistant to antibiotics, cleaning agents and other treatments than individual bacteria that float freely in blood, water or other medium. Plaque on teeth is a biofilm.

Biofilms can be extremely damaging, accounting for billions of dollars yearly in the U.S. in industrial downtime for equipment repair and cleaning, as well as health problems, including chronic wound infections, tooth decay and infections on medical implants. Increasingly, MSU scientists are showing that biofilms also can be engineered for beneficial uses, such as cleaning up environmental pollution.

Whether you are a global energy giant like BP or a small, emerging clinical-stage biotech company like Microbion, Baker said companies join CBE’s Industrial Associates program because it gives them access to leading-edge scientists, both through partnering in research and through the sharing of science during the meetings.

“These meetings are so well attended (by those in the biofilm field) because the Center for Biofilm Engineering is recognized as the world’s foremost biofilm research institute,” Baker said. “In fact, I would have moved my company practically anywhere in order to have such close proximity to the CBE - the fact that it is located in Montana has been a welcome bonus to me and my family.”

Baker said Microbion is getting set to partner with another Bozeman-based company, BioScience Laboratories, to carry out clinical testing of Microbion’s new drug designed to combat antibiotic-resistant, biofilm-related orthopedic infections. The contract work, which is being completed for Food and Drug Administration submission purposes, will be paid for in part by an $84,875 grant from Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology, which provides funding through the Montana Department of Commerce. The MBRCT has also awarded Microbion and the CBE a previous, larger grant, which resulted in discoveries that were published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology in 2011.

That state-funded research is just one instance of how the university’s research environment helps industry leverage the best science on biofilms to develop commercial technology, Baker said.

While Microbion is headquartered in Bozeman due to the presence of the CBE, several other biotech companies in Montana are direct spin-offs from research started at MSU, including Bacterin, Biosurface Technologies and Sustainable Bioproducts.

The CBE’s biannual meetings are another example of how the institute provides for collaboration between industry research and development teams and top academic and clinical scientists.

Thomas Mustoe, the former chief of plastic surgery at Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago and a leader in medical biofilm research, will be one of the featured speakers at this year’s meeting. Mustoe, who has spent years exploring in vivo models for testing the fundamentals and response to drugs of biofilms in chronic infections, said his interest in biofilms can be traced to a talk given by Phil Stewart, CBE director and MSU professor of chemical and biological engineering.

“That talk really triggered a light bulb in my head – I understood for the first time that bacteria didn’t just exist in wounds” in a free-floating form, but were configured in complex biofilms, Mustoe said. “I think the group at Montana State has shown they are pioneers in the field and these meetings put that leadership on display… and there’s a huge value to the community by holding these meetings. That’s how you advance research.”

Mustoe’s success in developing an animal model with which to consistently test biofilms is a major step, said Stewart, who added that Mustoe will be just one of several speakers whose work involves chronic infections.

The three-day meeting will also feature medical biofilm talks: Pradeep Singh, professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington, will talk about work he has done on the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa in relation to lung infections; Robin Patel, professor of medicine and microbiology based at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., will discuss her findings on the challenges that biofilm-related infections present for patients receiving prosthetic joint replacements; and Randall Wolcott, a wound specialist with a private practice in Lubbock, Texas, will discuss the ways in which he tailors his treatments by using genetic testing to determine what kind of biofilm is present in a given wound.

“These meetings are a great way for us to connect the dots between what we do here in our labs at the Center for Biofilm Engineering and what is happening in the clinics,” Stewart said. “We’ll be able to hear from a speaker like Randy Wolcott, who operates one of the only biofilm-centric wound care clinics in the country, as well as those who have conducted preliminary research here at MSU on some of the products that he uses to successfully treat chronic wounds.”

For his part, Wolcott said he’s another member of the medical profession who can trace his focus on biofilms to MSU. This time it was a lecture by Garth James, who is a CBE scientist and MSU research professor of chemical and biological engineering. Wolcott, James and Stewart went on to be among the co-authors of a groundbreaking paper on the nature of biofilms in chronic wounds.

Wolcott said he still feels that CBE and others in the biofilm community have their work cut out for them when it comes to convincing the medical community, as well as the FDA, that biofilms are central to infections.

“Something like 90 percent of wound-care doctors don’t really know about biofilms,” he said. “And we know that biofilms are responsible for the vast majority of these infections. It’s tough to find a medical textbook that mentions biofilms. CBE has been the center of the biofilm universe for more than 20 years and they are the group that gets together every year to try and get out front and push this idea.”

That’s why Wolcott said it was a very positive sign that the CBE was a co-host with the FDA last winter for a conference dedicated to the subject of biofilms.

Stewart said the approaches the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry take on biofilms continue to evolve. The cutting-edge nature of the field underscores the importance of the partnerships between academic science and industry that are fundamental to CBE, he added.

Since CBE was founded, the support of industry has helped fund the institute. In the past year, CBE scientists conduced 73 research projects for 48 industrial sponsors. That relationship also helps to promote further investigation into pure science, as well as the education of undergraduate and graduate students at MSU.

“CBE does many things, from technology transfer, to the illumination of new ways of thinking about how biofilms work fundamentally, to the education and training of the next generation of scientists, who we hope will go on to do their own groundbreaking research or start their own biotech companies,” Stewart said. 

Contact: Peg Dirckx, (406) 994-1846,