Investigating Infection

The National Science Foundation has awarded a one-year, $100,000 grant to University of Arkansas bioanalytical chemist Julie Stenken to serve as a scholar in residence at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The project will focus on monitoring chemical communication called “quorum sensing” arising from thin films of bacteria that adhere to medical implants such as catheters, ventilators – even artificial joints. About 60 percent of healthcare-associated infections are caused by infection of medical devices, leading to about 100,000 deaths annually. The Food and Drug Administration regulates medical devices.

Stenken, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is a leading expert in the technique of microdialysis sampling. Stenken, will work with Dr. Steven Wood, an immunologist at the Food and Drug Administration who has experience with medical devices. A microdialysis is a probe that is placed under the skin to mimic medical implants.

“We will use microdialysis sampling to monitor the chemical communication between bacteria in a biofilm and extend this to complex systems involving biofilms and macrophages,” Stenken said. “We will be able to measure the bacterial chemical communication and try to determine methods to prevent these films from forming.”

Stenken’s research group infuses different agents through the microdialysis probe that are designed to direct large white blood cells called macrophages into a healing state. Macrophages exist in our bodies to engulf or digest foreign objects, typically a virus or bacteria. In this project, the researchers will coat the membrane of the probe with bacteria to induce a biofilm.

“There are suggestions from the medical literature that if we can get macrophages to the implant, we could prevent a lot of this bacterial growth,” Stenken said.

Stenken holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Proteomics in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to NSF, her research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and Arkansas Biosciences Institute.

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