On June 5-6, 2013, Stevens hosted The Stevens Conference on Bacteria-Material Interactions, the second such event at Stevens to investigate the latest research ideas concerning a common, significant and costly medical problem, namely, implant-associated infection. More than 90 interdisciplinary scientists, engineers and clinicians from 10 different countries gathered in the Babbio Center to identify and address the scientific, technical, and regulatory challenges facing the development of infection-resistant tissue-contacting biomaterials.

The implantation of biomaterials – synthetic or natural materials used to build artificial organs, prostheses, and biomedical devices – too frequently cause serious and dramatic infections in the patient. What’s more, often the bacteria causing the infection are resistant to antibiotics, requiring a surgeon to remove the implant, cure the infected tissue, and then implant the biomaterial a second time. The problem is complicated by the growing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.

From medical device companies, to physicians and nurses, to tissue engineers working in research labs, the healthcare community is intent on solving the interdisciplinary problem of biomaterials-related infection. Advances will improve the quality of life for many thousands of patients annually who have joints, heart valves or tendons replaced, who receive dental or breast implants, or who undergo a variety of other clinical procedures involving biomaterials.  

The Stevens Conference covered a range of topics relevant to this growing field, including biomaterials-associated infection, biofilms and antimicrobial resistance, new approaches to evaluating biomaterials efficacy, and computational microbiology and materials design. Throughout the two-day meeting, international scientists in the fields of biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, chemical biology, chemistry, materials science, mechanical engineering, and computer science shared presentations and posters on the most cutting edge advancements in biomaterials research.

“The topic of bacteria-material interactions, and its sister field – infection-resisting biomaterials – continues to grow in terms of its clinical importance, the richness of the scientific problems it presents, and the extent to which people are studying it throughout the world,” said Dr. Matthew Libera, program chair of the 2013 Stevens Conference and Professor of Materials Science at Stevens. “This year’s conference once again introduced thought-provoking ideas that could lead toward impactful infection control solutions.”

Dr. Brian Evans, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgetown University and a Stevens alumnus from the Class of 1982, opened the Stevens Conference with an overview talk about the impact and implications of bacterial infection following total joint replacement – an infection problem he says he sees more commonly than he would like.

“I came to the conference to provide clinical perspective on the problem and to learn about the end product of what scientific research can do to help individual patients struggling with infection from implanted devices,” Evans said. “Infection is common in all surgery – especially implant surgery – and anything we can do develop coatings that are bacteria resistant will be extremely valuable to patients.”

Dr. Henk Busscher, a biomedical engineer and professor from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is a leading expert working to modify implants to become infection resistant.  Busscher and his colleagues at Groningen have collaborated with a number of Stevens faculty members including annually hosting groups of Stevens undergraduate students for collaborative summer research experiences and overseeing a dual Stevens-Groningen PhD program.  At the Stevens Conference he shared research on the key factors that control biomaterial-associated infections.

“Infection from biomaterial implants is a very urgent problem.  Although it affects only about five percent of patients, the end result can be fatal,” Busscher said. “I believe the problem will only be solved by collaborations between engineers, clinicians, and regulatory agencies. This meeting helps puts those three groups together in a very effective way.”

Stevens' efforts within the field of infection-resisting biomaterials fall under the umbrella of the newly minted Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI).  Driving innovation in healthcare and medicine through interdisciplinary research and education is one of Stevens’ key priorities articulated by the university’s strategic plan, which calls for a focus on areas of critical societal need. The CHI is designed to advance medical technology and improve healthcare delivery by spearheading education, research and partnerships in the fields of engineering, biology, computer science, and complex systems. Research into biomaterials to improve prosthetic devices, biomedical implants and infection control is just one aspect of the research of the more than 50 Stevens faculty members involved in the CHI.

A number of CHI-affiliated faculty members presented their recent research results at the Stevens Conference.  Among them was Dr. Woo Lee, George Mead Bond Professor of Chemical Engineering.  Lee described his work on the development and application of microfluidic-based 3-D tissue models in the context of biomaterials-associated infection with an approach that far better mimics human physiology than traditional petri-dish methods. Dr. Svetlana Sukhishvili, Professor of Chemistry at Stevens, spoke about radically new ways to modify the surfaces of biomedical implants to locally deliver antibiotics only when bacteria try to colonize their surfaces.  Dr. Adriana Compagnoni from the Stevens Department of Computer Science described her research efforts on novel methods of computational microbiology to perform virtual experiments in silico to predict optimum biomaterial surface properties to minimize bacterial colonization. Several Stevens graduate students, including ones from the research groups of Profs. James Liang and Matt Libera, also presented work from their doctoral thesis research.

The Stevens Conference reception and dinner banquet featured Michael Graziano, an independent movie producer with Uzi Films in Nashville, Tenn.  Graziano spoke about his latest project, a film entitled Resistance, which documents the societal issues associated with the rapidly growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The film is scheduled to premiere in October.

The 2013 Stevens Conference was made possible in part by financial support from the Stevens Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the National Science Foundation, and Zimmer Trabecular Metals Corporation. 

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