Biofilms may help cause ear infections

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: October 9th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In science-fiction movies, force fields always come in handy when the good guys need protection from hostile aliens or bug-eyed monsters.

Of course, these miraculous devices don’t really exist. But some of Earth’s simplest life forms protect themselves using a similar principle.

Many one-celled organisms secrete protein complexes called biofilms that serve as slimy barriers to the outside world.

Usually, biofilms don’t pose any threat to human health. But there’s increasing evidence that links them to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests biofilms may help some middle-ear infections resist treatment efforts.

The study involved twenty-six children who suffered recurring bouts of otitis media [oh-TIGHT-iss MEE-dee-uh], one of the most common childhood ailments.

Researchers wanted to know if biofilms were protecting the bacteria that cause these infections. So they analyzed tissue samples collected from the middle ear during corrective surgery.

The researchers analyzed fifty samples and found biofilms in ninety-two percent of them.

They also tested for three species of bacteria known to cause otitis media. Ninety percent of the samples were infected with at least one species.

These findings could help explain why some children suffer ear infections almost nonstop.

If biofilms enable bacteria to survive antibiotic treatments, maybe the infections never go away at all, they just wax and wane.

That’s not a pleasant thought. But the researchers said this possibility should be investigated.

No doubt plenty of miserable children will agree. Not to mention some very weary parents.