Protective polymers

Engineering Materials discovers a polymer material breakthrough that could act as an anti-bacterial coating for medical devices.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have discovered a new class of polymer material that is resistant to bacteria such as E-Coli. Medical devices can commonly come under attack from bacteria which can lead to serious infections and device failures.
Experts in the Schools of Pharmacy and Molecular Medical Sciences have shown that a new polymer material applied to the surface of medical devices repels bacteria and prevents them forming 'biofilms'.

Bacteria form 'communities' known as biofilms on many commonly-used medical devices using a 'strength in numbers' approach that protects them against the body's natural defences and antibiotics. However, the polymer-based coating is able to stop biofilms forming at a very early stage, which reduces the number of bacteria by up to 96.7%.

The new coating is the result of a four year, £1.3m, research project, while the material itself was found using a new technique developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Researchers believed there were materials that could resist bacteria much better than current medical grade materials, but had to find them. This meant screening thousands of different chemistries and testing their reaction to bacteria, a challenge which was beyond conventional materials development or any current understanding of the interaction of micro-organisms and surfaces. However, the technique developed by MIT allowed the researchers to test and screen thousands of unique polymers simultaneously.

"We have discovered a new group of structurally-related materials that dramatically reduce the attachment of pathogenic bacteria," says Professor Morgan Alexander, one of the lead scientists working on the project from the School of Pharmacy at Nottingham University. "The technology developed with the help of MIT means that hundreds of materials could be screened simultaneously to reveal new structure-property relationships."

In total, thousands of materials were investigated using the high-throughput materials discovery approach. This led to the identification of novel materials that resist bacterial attachment and prevent infections by stopping a biofilm from forming. By preventing bacterial attachment, the body's own immune system can kill the bacteria before it has time to generate biofilms.

Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at the Wellcome Trust, says: "Infections caused by microbial biofilms binding to the surface of implants often cannot be treated with conventional antibiotics. This makes them a significant challenge in patient care, particularly for those with inserted medical devices like catheters, heart valves and prosthetic joints.

"The discovery of these new polymers is a great example of how advances in materials science are being exploited to improve the performance of critical medical components."

Bacterial attachment and subsequent biofilm formation are key challenges to the performance of medical devices. The next stage of this research is to develop the coatings to enable the performance of these materials to be assessed clinically.

Engineering Materials

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