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Researchers Learn How Bacteria Clog Medical Devices

Findings could help shape prevention strategies (Mar. 1)

A new study has examined how bacteria clog medical devices, and the result isn’t pretty. The microbes join to create slimy ribbons that tangle and trap other passing bacteria, creating a full blockage in a surprisingly short period.

The finding could help shape strategies for preventing clogging of devices such as stents, as well as water filters and other items that are susceptible to contamination. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using time-lapse imaging, researchers at Princeton University monitored fluid flow in narrow tubes or pores similar to those used in water filters and medical devices. Unlike previous studies, the Princeton experiment more closely mimicked the natural features of the devices, using rough rather than smooth surfaces and pressure-driven fluid instead of non-moving fluid.

The team of biologists and engineers introduced a small number of bacteria known to be common contaminants of medical devices. Over a period of about 40 hours, the researchers observed that some of the microbes — dyed green for visibility — attached to the inner wall of the tube and began to multiply, eventually forming a slimy coating called a biofilm. These films consist of thousands of individual cells held together by a sort of biological glue.

Over the next several hours, the researchers sent additional microbes, dyed red, into the tube. These red cells became stuck to the biofilm-coated walls, where the force of the flowing liquid shaped the trapped cells into streamers that rippled in the liquid like flags rippling in a breeze. During this time, the fluid flow slowed only slightly.

At about 55 hours into the experiment, the biofilm streamers tangled with each other, forming a net-like barrier that trapped additional bacterial cells, creating a larger barrier, which in turn ensnared more cells. Within an hour, the entire tube became blocked, and the fluid flow stopped.

Using stents, soil-based filters, and water filters, the researchers proved that biofilm streamers can form in real scenarios and likely explain why devices fail.

Source: Princeton University; March 1, 2013.

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