People with the genetic condition cystic fibrosis contract chronic lung infections, which are highly resistant to antibiotics. Different species of bacteria come together to form slime-encased multicellular “biofilms” that clog the airways and protect the microbes within from attack by antibiotics, or by the host’s immune system. It can be very hard to predict, from standard diagnostic lab tests, which antibiotics might be able to penetrate biofilm defences and kill bacteria. Further, pathogenic microbes can work together to cause damage to the lung tissues and to protect each other from antibiotics. To better understand how cystic fibrosis lung infection develops, we use lung tissue from pigs slaughtered for meat to build realistic lung biofilms in the lab. In this way, we hope that we can find the Achilles’ heel of debilitating and often lethal lung infection – and help researchers work on many different aspects of lung infection microbiology without the need for experiments on live animals.
Dr Freya Harrison is a microbiologist working in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. She researches how bacterial pathogens interact and evolve during chronic infections, especially in the long-lived lung infections that affect people with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. She is also a founder member of the interdisciplinary AncientBiotics consortium, which seeks to identify, reconstruct and test infection remedies from medieval medical books in the hope of finding new agents to treat antibiotic-resistant infections.
Image: The bacterium P. aeruginosa forms sticky blue-green biofilm around tissue taken from pigs’ airways. Credit: Dr Freya Harrison