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Schiffman and Andrews Receive NSF Grant to Unveil Mechanisms of Bacterial Attachment to Hydrogel-coated Medical Devices

Jessica Schiffman (L) and Lauren Andrews (R)

Associate Professor Jessica Schiffman and Assistant Professor Lauren Andrews of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department have received a three-year, $515,473 grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) Division Of Materials Research.

The NSF funding will support fundamental research that aims to understand how bacteria attach to polymer materials and enable the re-engineering of hydrogel-coated biomedical devices, which include catheters, implants, wound dressings, and contact lenses, that can better prevent bacterial infections. Schiffman is the principal investigator for this NSF grant and the Professor James M. Douglas Career Development Faculty Fellow in the Chemical Engineering Department. Andrews is the co-principal investigator and the Marvin and Eva Schlanger Faculty Fellow in Chemical Engineering. Their project will develop a new interdisciplinary approach that leverages material science and synthetic biology techniques to elucidate and engineer interactions between bacteria and biomaterial surfaces.

Schiffman and Andrews point out that over one-quarter of all healthcare-associated infections in the United States are attributed to central line-associated bloodstream infections and catheter-associated urinary tract infections. This NSF project will investigate how mechanical properties and other material properties of the polymers, such as hydrophilicity, affect the attachment of microbes to the surfaces of catheters and other indwelling biomedical devices that are indispensable tools in modern healthcare. As the researchers note, 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.

“The ability to predict how biofilms respond to substrate mechanics is an open question,” as Schiffman explains. “Our team will establish the native response of microorganisms to polymer coatings by correlating microbial attachment to a library of materials with varied structure-property relationships and high-throughput transcriptome analysis of the attached cells.” Moreover, the team “will identify genetic targets that control bacterial adhesion and proliferation on these mechano-chemically diverse hydrogel materials by applying synthetic biology and genomic engineering tools for important biofilm-forming bacteria, such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus,” Andrews describes.

According to Schiffman, “The Schiffman Research Group is a creative and imaginative team that innovates bioinspired materials to tackle grand challenges in human health. Our research is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing influences from chemical engineering, materials science, and microbiology.”
“The Andrews Lab aims to uncover genetic design rules to reprogram gene regulation and metabolism in living cells and microbial communities for applications in health and biotechnology,” as Andrews says about her group. “We are excited to develop new toolsets to engineer biomedically-relevant bacteria and team up with the Schiffman Group to engineer programmable bacterial-biomaterial interfaces, which could have far-reaching applications.” (February 2020)

In photo, left to right are: Associate Professor Jessica Schiffman; grad students Irene Kurtz, Hyerim Ban, Brandon Barajas, Stephanie Call; and Assistant Professor Lauren Andrews.