Scientists discover new bacteria-resistant materials

University of Nottingham team helped by MIT mass spectrometer

Professor Morgan Alexander (foreground) and Dr David Scurr study the results of the sample analysis. Credit: The University of Nottingham

Researchers at The University of Nottingham claim to have discovered a new class of polymers that are resistant to bacterial attachment.

Experts in the University’s Schools of Pharmacy and Molecular Medical Sciences have shown that when the new materials are applied to the surface of medical devices they repel bacteria and prevent them forming biofilms, which could lead to a significant reduction in medical device failures and hospital infections.

Professor Morgan Alexander and Professor Martyn Davies in the School of Pharmacy and Professor Paul Williams in the School of Molecular Medical Sciences led the research.

The results of the £1.3m four-year research project supported by a Translation Award from the Wellcome Trust, have been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The researchers screened thousands of different chemistries and tested their reaction to bacteria with the help of experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, who initially developed the process by which thousands of unique polymers can now be screened simultaneously.


Close-up of samples inside the ion mass spectrometer. Credit: University of Nottingham

Professor Alexander said: “This is a major scientific breakthrough – we have discovered a new group of structurally related materials that dramatically reduce the attachment of pathogenic bacteria (Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli). We could not have found these materials using the current understanding of bacteria-surface interactions. 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 this high throughput materials discovery approach leading to the identification of novel materials resisting bacterial attachment. This could not have been achieved using conventional techniques.”

These new materials prevent infection by stopping biofilm formation at the earliest possible stage – when the bacteria first attempt to attach themselves to the device. In the laboratory, the scientists were able to reduce the numbers of bacteria by up to 96.7% – compared with a commercially available silver containing catheter – and were effective at resisting bacterial attachment in a mouse implant infection model. By preventing bacterial attachment the body’s own immune system can kill the bacteria before they have time to generate biofilms.

Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at The Wellcome Trust, said: “The discovery of these new polymers is a great example of how advances in materials science are being exploited in our efforts to improve the performance of critical medical components. Just as materials science gave us the non-stick saucepan, so we look forward to the day of the ‘non-stick’ medical device.”

The next stage of this research will be to develop the manufacture of these materials to enable their performance to be assessed clinically and the inventors are in early stage discussions with a number of medical device companies.