When something new hits the health news it is common for the negative aspects to overwhelm other, more positive, issues. For example most people believe that cholesterol is a bad thing when in fact it is a compound essential to human metabolism and only causes problems when it exceeds safe limits. A few decades ago bacteria got similar treatment – all bacteria were deemed to be bad and had to be eradicated at all costs. Of course now we are learning that bacteria are essential to life and, for the most part, bad or pathogenic bacteria are in the minority. Currently a similar situation appears to be arising with regard to biofilms as they quickly become synonymous with the underlying causes of many infections particularly relating to nosocomial acquired diseases such as Candida acquired from devises such as catheters.
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For the uninitiated biofilms are, relatively speaking, something new to medical science and may provide the answers to many questions puzzling scientists and clinicians alike.
For decades the reason for some infections remaining obstinately resistant to treatment remained a mystery until the concept of biofilms was unearthed.
Biofilms exist everywhere. From the slime on rocks, to the film in the dog’s water bowl and even the plaque on your teeth. In fact the first discovery of biofilms was back in 1684 when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered the myriad microbes or in his words ‘animalcules’ in the ‘scurf’ on teeth. Yet his significant observation was overlooked for centuries and it is not until the last decade that scientists have started to seriously investigate the behavior of biofilms and how they affect our lives and, in particular, our health.
One main reason for this oversight was that scientists have been investigating bacteria as free-floating organisms which are referred to as being planktonic (make sure to watch this video). In this form bacteria have little protection against modern drugs and are relatively easily treated. Yet these same bacteria act in a much more complex manner when they form biofilms. In this scenario not only do numerous strains of bacteria come together but a microbial community is formed which also includes fungi, algae and yeasts. To protect this community a layer is constructed over it consisting of a polysaccaride matrix or EPS (Extracellular Polymeric Substance) making it extremely difficult for contemporary treatments to penetrate and leaving the bacteria underneath to multiply.
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To complicate matters further the matrix itself is comprised of fibrous filaments of cellulose which are extremely difficult to break down and in many cases contemporary treatments can even result in a defensive response by the biofilm which makes it even stronger.
There can now be no doubt that many infections resulting from biofilm activity or communities result in chronic disease. Such illnesses are especially prevalent in nosocomial disease particularly in respect of implants and invasive medical devises and have been the subject of much scientific discussion and researcher.
So the word in the news is that biofilms are the bad guys. They are a highly organized defensive community which protect pathogenic bacteria implicated in many chronic infections and leave their host (the patient) to suffer the consequences.
The Benefits of Biofilms
But although the current focus is on the problems biofilms can cause the alternative school of thought provides us with the theory that under normal healthy circumstances biofilms actually perform essential and beneficial roles in the body.
Simply because biofilms contain bacteria it does not necessarily follow that the bacteria are pathogenic or damaging. In fact, as we have recently come to appreciate the majority of bacteria are actually beneficial and perform essential functions and it would seem that biofilms too, are in the main, harmless and do not necessarily contain pathogenic bacteria. In fact numerous researchers suggest that under normal circumstances biofilms act beneficially for the host.
For example it is thought that biofilms prevent exogenous pathogens from forming by a process known as colonization resistance – which means the biofilm community form a defense against bad bacteria. The vagina in particular is renown to be protected by biofilms and research has established that in this case they perform colonization resistance by altering the pH of the environment which prevents colonization of bad bacteria.
Other research, such as that by Jeffrey Gordon et al and Bolinger claims that under normal healthy conditions biofilms live in the gut and large bowel and they protect the host in several different ways including aiding the digestion luminal contents and again in defending against pathogenic attack.
We can see that although research is still somewhat limited, when biofilms are non-pathogenic research indicates that the functions they perform are of benefit to the host. Indeed, since biofilms are thought to be one of the earliest forms of life it would seem reasonable to assume that their role, at least under normal circumstances, is one of a defensive rather than antagonistic state. This would be supported by further research which also indicates that biofilms perform similar defensive practices not only in the vagina and intestine but also on the skin and in the oral cavity.
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Although the structure, function and role of biofilm is complex we understand now that the activity of this microbe community is highly developed and completely different to the planktonic bacteria we have come to understand in more detail. Where planktonic bacteria will trigger an autoimmune response, biofilm do not. They are also highly resistant to antibiotics unlike planktonic bacteria and can even build strong defenses against such conventional treatments.
Yet, like the majority of bacteria in the body, research is also revealing that biofilms may actually have other, less easily discernible, benefits to their host. Some even suggest that because of the way they react they prevent more serious conditions arising. Conversely it seems that biofilms occasionally release individual or planktonic bacteria which stimulates a reaction by the immune system and ensures the chronic condition continues. Therefore the biofilm community is sustaining not only the life of the patient but also that of their host. If the host were to die then the biofilm too, would cease to exist.
Certainly there is much to be learned not only about biofilms but also from them. However the implications to date indicate that there may also be positive aspects to their activities as well as disadvantages.
CanxidaRemove can help in eradication of biofilms.