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Breathing new life into medical devices

Alex Brand

Alex Brand

In the second of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, microbiologist Alex Brand from the University of Aberdeen tells us how she’s set her sights on combating a fungus that can infiltrate medical devices.  

Every day we read about new medical advances that help us to combat life-threatening injury and disease. This is great for patients but it does mean that more of us spend time in hospital using the catheters, ventilators, tubes and prosthetics that keep us alive during treatment and improve our chances of survival. While life-saving, these devices can become contaminated with the microbes that are all around us, including those from our own skin.

Candida albicans is one such organism. It is a fungus that most of us carry without even knowing because our immune system keeps it in check, but it can easily find its way onto medical plastics where there are no immune cells to control its growth.  

Once attached to the plastic, it multiplies to form a thick, visible layer of cells called a biofilm, which can shed drug-resistant cells into the bloodstream and seed deadly internal infection in patients who are already ill. Biofilms can also clog up medical inserts and stop them from working properly. And in some soft devices, such as voice prosthetics and replacement heart valves, the fungus even penetrates the plastic, causing the device to malfunction and require replacement.

It has proved difficult to stop C. albicans forming biofilms on the plastics used in hospitals. Fortunately, technology as well as medical science is always advancing and new molecules are now available for the manufacture of medical plastics. My lab’s Centenary Award project will involve working with a team of polymer chemists so that together we can design and test new materials.

A Candida albicans biofilm growing on a medical polymer

A Candida albicans biofilm growing on a medical polymer

We aim to develop a material that can resist attachment and degradation by C. albicans, yet is easy to manufacture and functions normally in the human body. We’ll be trying different combinations of polymers and other compounds and testing whether C. albicans biofilms can form on them.

Our year’s funding is shared between the two teams but we’re not expecting to get a new material for devices onto the market within this time. Instead, we hope to make progress in finding out which materials to pursue and which to leave on the shelf so that we can focus on the promising ones in the next stage of research.

Eventually, we hope to keep the microbes in check so that patients don’t need their soft devices replacing so often, or so that others can leave hospital — and catheters — safely behind them.

Alex Brand

Read a profile of Alex here on the blog.

The MRC Centenary Awards have been provided to the very best MRC-funded early-career researchers to give them extra time and resources to build on their achievements and learn new skills. £14m was made available for the awards, which mark 100 years of the MRC in 2013.

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