Biofilms and Disease
Recall that biofilms are microbial communities that are very difficult to destroy. They are responsible for diseases such as Legionnaires’ disease, otitis media (ear infections), and various infections in patients with cystic fibrosis. They produce dental plaque and colonize catheters, prostheses, transcutaneous and orthopedic devices, contact lenses, and internal devices such as pacemakers. They also form in open wounds and burned tissue. In healthcare environments, biofilms grow on hemodialysis machines, mechanical ventilators, shunts, and other medical equipment. In fact, 65 percent of all infections acquired in the hospital (nosocomial infections) are attributed to biofilms. Biofilms are also related to diseases contracted from food because they colonize the surfaces of vegetable leaves and meat, as well as food-processing equipment that isn’t adequately cleaned.
Biofilm infections develop gradually and may not cause immediate symptoms. They are rarely resolved by host defense mechanisms. Once an infection by a biofilm is established, it is very difficult to eradicate, because biofilms tend to be resistant to most methods used to control microbial growth, including antibiotics. The matrix that attaches the cells to a substrate and to other another protects the cells from antibiotics or drugs. In addition, since biofilms grow slowly, they are less responsive to agents that interfere with cell growth. It has been reported that biofilms can resist up to 1,000 times the antibiotic concentrations used to kill the same bacteria when they are free-living or planktonic. An antibiotic dose that large would harm the patient; therefore, scientists are working on new ways to get rid of biofilms.