Biofilms and Device-Associated Infections

Rodney M. Donlan, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2001;7(2) 

In This Article

Directions for Future Research

To better understand and control biofilms on indwelling medical devices, research must progress in several key areas. More reliable techniques for collecting and measuring biofilms should be developed. For central venous catheters, the reference method for quantification of biofilms on catheter tips is the roll-plate technique, in which the tip of the catheter is removed and rolled over the surface of a nonselective medium. Quantification of the biofilm depends on the number of organisms recovered by contact with the agar surface. Biofilm-associated cells on the inner lumen of the device are not detected with this method, which has low diagnostic sensitivity and low predictive value for catheter-related bacteremia[7]. In addition, this method cannot detect more than 1,000 colony-forming units (CFU) per tip. A method that used sonication plus vortexing as a means of quantifying biofilms on catheter tips showed that a level of 104 CFU per tip is predictive of catheter-related septicemia. Although this method is an improvement over the semi-quantitative roll-plate technique, the recovery efficiency of the method needs to be determined (i.e., the percentage of cells that are not recovered and quantified). Zufferey et al.[35] described a method for rapidly detecting biofilm cells on catheters by direct staining of the catheter with acridine orange. Although they found good agreement with culture techniques and noted that this technique provided more rapid results, they did not quantify cells; instead, they recorded a simple positive or negative result. Techniques that allow counting of biofilm cells directly on the catheter surface would be an improvement over established methods.

Model systems should be developed and used to study biofilm processes on various indwelling medical devices. These systems should closely simulate the in vivo or in situ conditions for each device, while at the same time providing reproducible, accurate results. To investigate biofilm formation on needleless connectors, Donlan et al.[14] used a biofilm disk reactor system (Figure 2) that incorporated a medium (intravenous fluid), a material (teflon coupons or needleless connectors), an organism (Enterobacter cloacae), and a flow rate (1 mL/min) that closely simulated conditions of use for these devices. Results were both reproducible and precise, and the system was capable of developing a steady state biofilm (Figure 3). This system design could be used to investigate and compare various biofilm control treatments, device design modifications, or different media formulations. By performing a similar experiment in an animal model system, biofilm processes in vivo could be predicted.

Figure 2. Biofilm disk reactor system.

Figure 3. Enterobacter cloacae biofilm formation on needleless connectors.

Another area of great importance from a public health perspective is the role of biofilms in antimicrobial-drug resistance. Bacteria within biofilms are intrinsically more resistant to antimicrobial agents than planktonic cells because of the diminished rates of mass transport of antimicrobial molecules to the biofilm associated cells[36] or because biofilm cells differ physiologically from planktonic cells[37]. Antimicrobial concentrations sufficient to inactivate planktonic organisms are generally inadequate to inactivate biofilm organisms, especially those deep within the biofilm, potentially selecting for resistant subpopulations. This selection may have implications for treatments that use controlled release of antimicrobial agents to prevent biofilm growth on indwelling devices. Bacteria can transfer extachromosomal genetic elements within biofilms; Roberts et al.[38] demonstrated transfer of a conjugative transposon in a model oral biofilm. Hausner and Wuertz[39] demonstrated conjugation in a lab-grown biofilm with rates one to three orders of magnitude higher than those obtained by classic plating techniques. Resistance-plasmids could also be transferred within biofilms on indwelling medical devices.

The link between biofilm contamination of an indwelling device and patient infection is often unclear. Raad et al.[9] noted that biofilm formation was universal on vascular catheters collected from patients, yet observed that this universal colonization rarely resulted in bloodstream infection. A better understanding of the factors that control cell detachment may help answer the questions: Is there a critical biofilm density threshold above which detachment occurs? What is the role of the exopolymers in this process? Davies et al.[40] demonstrated the role of acyl homoserine lactones (HSL) in biofilms of P. aeruginosa and showed that HSL-knockouts were deficient in biofilm architecture and much more readily detached than wild-type organisms. Stickler et al.[41] detected these quorum-sensing molecules in biofilms on urethral catheters. A greater understanding of cell-to-cell communication within biofilms may lead to better predictability of biofilm processes such as detachment, as well as more effective control strategies.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.