Researchers at Binghamton University have received a grant to study potential solutions for infections related to medical implants.

Karin Sauer, a professor of biological sciences who works in biofilms research, along with the rest of her team, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research grant. According to Sauer, the goal of their research is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the number of infections caused by biofilms adhering to medical implants. Infections from surgical implants can be chronic and potentially life-threatening, especially since implants can range from heart valves to knee replacements. Currently, it occurs in up to five percent of patients, according to research published in the Journal of Surgical Infections.

In an article published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, the authors state that biofilm formation on implant surfaces protects bacteria from host defenses, as well as human interventions such as antibiotics. The article also reviewed the difficulty of obtaining data about biofilm infections, a topic which Sauer further elaborated on.

“Unfortunately, the biofilm component is not very well-recognized in hospitals, so it’s really hard to track down how many infections really are caused by biofilms,” Sauer said. “But, new statistics indicate that just infections associated by hip and knee replacements that cause a mortality — meaning death of a patient — is as high as those suffering from breast cancer, and that’s a huge number. So there is this silent killer out there that no one has really been paying attention to.”

Other researchers on this project include David Davies, a professor of biological sciences, and Claudia Marques, an associate professor of biological sciences. Sauer said that others involved in the project include immunologists, engineers and machine learning specialists, and described the research as highly interdisciplinary.

Sauer explained some of the challenges that came with this type of collaboration.

“It took us a while to form this team and to learn each other’s language,” Sauer said. “This is actually the challenge that we have all experienced — that we all use different terminologies. We may mean the same thing, but it takes a while to figure it out.”

In addition to doing research, Sauer shared that she and her team have been hosting a seminar series called “Approaching Zero” — as in zero infections — for the past two years. Speakers from all over the world come with the goal of having people learn from different disciplines and work together to solve the infection problem, according to Sauer.

“We want for students to also become familiar with the problem, to be aware, but also to learn from each other,” Sauer said. “So to hear actually what would go into fixing the problem from the engineering side, from the material side, from the clinician side [and] from the regulatory side. It turns out a lot of problems are associated with getting approval from new materials, so we had speakers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, hearing their side.”

In addition to lowering the quality of life, another issue with implant-associated infections is financial cost. An article published in the Journal of Hospital Infections states that infections associated with surgical implants cost nearly $11 billion annually in the United States.

Daniela Bagan, a junior majoring in psychology, said she hopes the implant’s benefits override its financial cost.

“It’s pretty important, because getting an implant is really expensive,” Bagan said. “It sounds like it has the potential to help a lot more people.”

Sauer said the main, long-term goal for the research is to eliminate implant-related infections completely. This would significantly reduce the number of hospital deaths, according to Sauer, allowing people access to safer, more comfortable and more affordable surgeries.

Francesca Varriano, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, drew connections between the research Sauer’s lab is doing and the research she is working on in class.

“The research we’re doing is trying to implement testing for children to catch depression early on,” Varriano said. “I see a similarity in trying to make the medical realm a better, easier place for people to navigate.”