Montana State University

Battling biofilms brings together academics and industry at conference

July 25, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Anabelle Morales, a senior scientist with specialty chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas, is given a demonstration by Liz Sandvik, a master's degree candidate in chemical and biological engineering at Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering. Morales was one of more than 90 industrial representatives attending the center's annual conference this week on biofilms, sticky masses of bacterial that cause multi-billion dollar problems in industry and health care. (Photo courtesy of Center for Biofilm Engineering.)    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Researchers, doctors and businesspeople from across the United States and the United Kingdom are in Bozeman this week discussing how to battle sticky masses of bacteria known as biofilms at what may be the largest industrial conference on the subject anywhere.

The conference is hosted by Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering, the oldest, largest and best-known biofilm research center in the world.

Biofilms are bacteria that latch onto surfaces -- teeth, the inside of water pipelines, heart valves, catheters, human tissues, and countless other surfaces -- and then form complex colonies that secrete a goo-like armor that makes them highly resistant to antibiotics and disinfectants. Biofilms are considered a multi-billion dollar industrial and medical problem.

"This is a unique conference, in that -- certainly in the biofilm area -- there is nothing quite like this in the world," said Jeremy Yarwood, senior microbiologist from the corporate research lab of 3M, one of the nation's largest companies.

"In terms of biofilms, the center has the most well-developed industrial program in size and in its comfort level of working with industry," Yarwood said. "I haven't seen anything like this anywhere else."

3M is one of the center's 28 industrial associates. Each associate company pays an annual fee of $22,000. In return, the center offers education, workshops, research, testing, intellectual property development consulting and acts as a liaison with various regulatory agencies such as the FDA and EPA.

The center's relationship with industry has been an integral part of its strategy since its founding in 1990, said Phil Stewart, center director.

Each year, the center hosts two conferences for its industrial associates. This year's is the largest ever, with more than 90 individuals attending.

"For us, it has been a great partnership," said David Fink, director of research and development for Covidien, one of the largest healthcare companies in the world and a center associate since 1997. "With regards to biofilms, we saw the center as a mechanism to tie us to cutting edge research."

The word biofilm was coined in 1978 by Bill Costerton, former director of MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering. In the 29 years since, biofilms have been blamed for causing billions of dollars of damage to U.S. industry by fouling pipes, contaminating products and damaging equipment.

Recently, interest in medical biofilms has exploded. The National Institutes of Health now estimates that nearly 80 percent of all human infections -- everything from cystic fibrosis, to dental plaque, to chronic wounds -- are biofilm based.

Last year, the center won a $2.9 million grant from the NIH to investigate the role biofilms play in slow-healing wounds, and medical biofilms are a major theme at this week's conference. Slow-healing wounds -- common among diabetics -- lead to nearly 82,000 foot and leg amputations in the U.S. annually. Biofilms are suspected to play a role in 250,000 medical-device infections -- such as catheters and artificial joints -- annually as well.

"We suspected the role of infections in medical devices was not well understood and the center was a vehicle for us to tie to research in that area," Fink said.

"The solution to medical biofilms will be found by a consortium of industrial, academic and regulatory bodies," Fink said. "We'll only be successful working cooperatively, and this conference helps advance that process."

In all the industrial and academic partnership, students have not been ignored. During 2006-2007, the center had 47 graduate students and 33 undergraduate students from 12 different academic departments performing research. Many of those projects were funded through dollars from industrial partners.

"I think this conference shows that the practical side of our academic research -- in everything from environmental cleanup to medicine -- is gaining recognition," Stewart said. "We must be doing something right to draw all these people."

The conference, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, continues through Thursday. For more information on Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering, visit: http://www.erc.montana.edu/

Contact: Phil Stewart, director of MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, (406) 994-1960 or e-mail at phil_s@erc.montana.edu