UMass Amherst Engineers Receive NSF Grant to Find Ways To Prevent Bacterial Infections from Common Medical Devices

New materials and coatings could prevent frequent sources of infections
Jessica Schiffman, front left, Lauren Andrews, front right. Graduate students (back row, left to right) Irene Kurtz, Hyerim Ban, Brandon Barajas, and Stephanie Call.
Jessica Schiffman, front left, Lauren Andrews, front right. Graduate students (back row, left to right) Irene Kurtz, Hyerim Ban, Brandon Barajas, and Stephanie Call.

AMHERST, Mass. – In an effort to combat a major source of serious bacterial infections, chemical engineers Jessica Schiffman and Lauren B. Andrews at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are studying how bacteria attach themselves to polymer materials used in biomedical devices such as catheters, implants, wound dressings and contact lenses. The goal is to help prevent infections by developing new biofouling resistant materials.

The research is funded with a three-year, $515,473 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that supports fundamental research on how bacteria attach to polymer materials and how to re-engineer hydrogel-coated biomedical devices.

Schiffman is an associate professor and the Professor James M. Douglas Career Development Faculty Fellow in the chemical engineering department. Andrews is an assistant professor and the Marvin and Eva Schlanger Faculty Fellow in Chemical Engineering. Their project will develop a new interdisciplinary approach that uses material science and synthetic biology techniques to learn about and engineer the interactions between bacteria and biomaterial surfaces.

Schiffman and Andrews point out that more than one-quarter of all healthcare-associated infections in the United States are attributed to bloodstream infections from catheters attached to large veins that allow fluids into the body and catheter-associated urinary tract infections. They will investigate how mechanical properties and other material properties of the polymers, such as their affinity for water, affect the attachment of microbes to the surfaces of catheters and other biomedical devices that are inside the body. Such devices are common tools in modern healthcare.

The researchers note that while hydrogel coatings are typically applied to catheters to improve patient comfort and lower the adsorption of proteins and microorganisms, systematic and fundamental studies that reveal why microbes initially adhere to solid surfaces are lacking and could inform the development of biofouling-resistant materials.

Both Schiffman and Andrews are affiliated with UMass Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS). Andrews is in the Microbiome, Microbes and Infectious Disease (MMID) theme and Schiffman is the theme leader for IALS group Biomaterials for Devices and Regenerative Medicine (BDRM).

Schiffman heads an interdisciplinary research group that designs “greener” solutions to grand challenges in human health by merging concepts from engineering, chemistry and biology. “We are creating new materials that will both improve people’s lives and have a low impact on our environment.” Schiffman says, “When possible, we use natural materials, such as seaweed, instead of polymers derived from fossil fuels, or plant extracts instead of commercial antibiotics to help prevent the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Although many of our starting materials are common, they bring their own challenges, which keeps my team of engineers and scientists busy innovating “green” products like long-lasting membranes that clean water, fabrics produced without toxic solvents and safe biomaterials that stay infection-free.”

Andrews’s research focuses on uncovering genetic design rules to reprogram living cells and microbial communities for applications in health, biotechnology and biomanufacturing. “We are interested in understanding the genetic underpinning of bacteria attaching to biomaterials so that we can control this behavior using synthetic biology. Ultimately, we aim to translate these findings to the clinic to better prevent and treat bacterial infections on medical devices.”