The scope of research into biofilms is almost limitless – with potential benefits across healthcare, agriculture, maritime, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and many other sectors. And Nottingham is leading the way.
Professor Miguel Cámara has a vision. As co-director of the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) and lead for the University, he sees Nottingham at the very forefront of developments in biofilms, not just as a leading player inthe UK but also on the world stage. Which is why NBIC has been developing international links with other top research centres around the globe, in Singapore, the USA and Denmark.
Professor Cámara said, “We want to make sure that beyond being recognised as a national centre of excellence, we’re also establishing partnerships with all these centres around the world, so that we get a unique international community linked up.”
NBIC brings together the UK’s top biofilm researchers and is supported by a commitment of £26 million over the next five years, including £12.5 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK. It is led by teams at the universities of Nottingham, Southampton, Edinburgh and Liverpool, while a further 11 universities and three research centres are members. This group is already expanding.
We can tackle complex issues and maximise our progress across different areas.
Biofilms are a community of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on many different surfaces and can be prevalent in natural, industrial and hospital settings – they are a leading cause of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and a major cause of chronic infections. Contamination, energy losses and damage caused by biofilms also impact on the UK food industry, consumer products and the global coatings industry.
Because biofilms are literally everywhere, they present different challenges and opportunities to a range of industries from agriculture to healthcare. Microbial biofilm research is now a feature of many scientific disciplines including biological sciences, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematical and computational modelling, engineering and ocean science.
“Biofilms are very complex in nature and to be able to study them in different environments you need to bring a lot of disciplines together." Professor Cámara (pictured left), from the School of Life Sciences, said, “NBIC allows us to do that, bringing complementary fields of expertise together so that we can tackle complex issues and maximise our progress across different areas.”
While activity in Nottingham focuses in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, where the NBIC laboratories are based, it has a broad base across the University, spanning the Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences, Science, and Engineering. Participating with the NBIC will also be the Centre for Healthcare Technologies, the Interface and Surface Analysis Centre, the School of Life Sciences Imaging unit and the Synthetic Biology Research Centre.
Close collaboration with industry is also crucial. More than 60 companies – from big multinationals to SMEs – are already interacting with the centre. Each sector brings its own biofilms challenge, helping to broaden scientific knowledge.
Professor Cámara said: “The commonalities we are finding are amazing. We’d be talking to the water industry sector, then we’d have a conversation with a company in oil and gas, and discover they have similar problems.”
Alongside work to commercialise new solutions, NBIC will focus on fundamental research to expand the horizons of scientific knowledge. Capacity-building in Nottingham will mean more researchers working at the centre, more training and increased activity across the board.
To support the long-term sustainability of biofilm research, NBIC is also looking to develop a doctoral training network on biofilms at Nottingham in collaboration with the other core institutions. The next generation of PhD students, Professor Cámara says, will need to work across disciplines so they can integrate microbiology, chemistry, physics and other other areas of knowledge. Understanding all these different ‘languages’ will be essential, he says – because multidisciplinary discovery is at the core of biofilm research.
For now though, Professor Cámara is relishing the challenge of helping to lead NBIC as it takes on some of the world’s biggest research challenges.
“It’s a really exciting adventure,” he said. “The real driver for me – for all of us – is that we feel the centre is going to be of huge benefit to biofilm research, and to the UK as a whole. It will put UK biofilm research on the world map. The fact that we’re learning so much about these big problems, and that we can actually play a role in helping to solve them – it’s fantastic.”
It’s very exciting to be involved in this
Dr Fadi Soukarieh is one of the multidisciplinary researchers in Nottingham helping the National Biofilms Innovation Centre stake a claim as a world-leader.
“As a scientist, it’s very exciting and motivating to be involved with this.
“My focus at the moment is antibacterial drug discovery. The need for new antibiotics is a huge global challenge and I’m working with Miguel Cámara, who is studying bacterial signalling mechanisms and working on novel antibacterial target discovery, Dr Michael Stocks, who has years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, and Professor Paul Williams, who leads the Wellcome Trust Doctoral Training Centre in Antimicrobials and Antimicrobial Resistance. Bacteria tend to form biofilms that are very resistant to treatment, so this area of expertise is of course complementary to the NBIC.
“My work starts with the chemistry, the compound, and moves across to microbiology and eventually how this new compound is actually working in the patient. This design approach has to be proactive and coherent and working across these areas is very satisfying.
“The National Biofilms Innovation Centre gives a renewed focus to our work as world-leaders in this field. It’s also a model for what is continuously happening at the University, where we support scientists such as myself who work across disciplines and bring multi-faceted teams together. It’s a real strength at Nottingham.
“We’re bringing expertise from across the University under one roof, in this case at the existing Centre for Biomolecular Sciences. For example, we already have an extensive compound library, which was brought by Peter Fischer, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, plus Miguel Cámara’s work on biofilms, and, thanks to Professor Nigel Minton, the Director of the BSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre, a robot to screen these compounds.
“The University itself is a great environment for any researcher. There any plenty of scientists like me who start with the seeds of an idea that branches out. We are encouraged to seek collaborators and a wider perspective, to be long-term in our objectives, and to think strategically and how to involve industries, not just in a clinical setting as in my case, but in other environments.”