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The news release from the Technical University of Munich reminds us how much the medical profession relies on new technological advances. This news was about how to overcome biofilms, the protective layer that bacteria secrete that create havoc for middle ear infections and implants, as well us stuffing up our bathroom pipes and our dog’s teeth.

07062017-1360622The news release from the Technical University of Munich reminds us how much the medical profession relies on new technological advances. This news was about how to overcome biofilms, the protective layer that bacteria secrete that create havoc for middle ear infections and implants, as well us stuffing up our bathroom pipes and our dog’s teeth.

“Dental plaque and the viscous brown slime in drainpipes are two familiar examples of bacterial biofilms,” the news release said. It is the water-repellent polymers that bacteria produce that protect against environmental hazards. Mucous is a beneficial biofilm that protects vaginal, gut and respiratory passages but the protection it offers is broken down by H pylori when it establishes itself in the gut.

So it is with other pathogens, they can have different ways of overcoming biofilm protection.

Mind you, bacterial biofilms are tough. And the same bacteria can produce different biofilms, depending on growth nutrients, with different water repellent properties when it comes to nature (see picture).

Bacteria in biofilms are often difficult to kill with antibiotics and other chemicals. These researchers now propose tackling the water-repellent properties of biofilms:

“An antibacterial substance cannot work if it is unable to reach the surface of a biofilm because it rolls off. Thus, we need to modify this water-repellent surface texture. This would be a new approach to the removal of biofilms from surfaces such as tubes, catheters and infected wounds.”

Designing and testing new technologies like this is contentious. Some want the system relaxed so things reach the marketplace sooner. We see enough TGA hazard warnings or recalls to be cautious about this.

Some technologies are clearly open to abuse for financial gain so checkpoints become important to the community at large. Greater transparency may be the key (see www.doctorsdrum.com.au). In this day and age where strong doubt is cast on politicians acting for the community good, any sort of competing interests around scientific advancement may be viewed with suspicion.

Here’s a sample to reflect on: a handheld multispectral analysis tool that examines tissue morphology and helps in the clinical analysis of melanoma; continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps; aortic valve replacement by catheter inserted at the groin; analysing big health data to help in fields like oncology; simulation and augmented or virtual reality in medical teaching; personalised diets for better health or sports performance based on genetic makeup; 3D bioprinting of body parts; and health trackers, wearables and sensors.

Many of these technologies seem to offer cost savings, which has got the interest of cash-strapped people who hold the public purse. Here’s the rub. We badly need bold advancement using new technologies but this will not happen in a no-risk environment and the public service appears full of people who are risk-averse.

On the other hand, what the profession doesn’t want are new technologies that have them working faster in a more impersonal way. This is technology for technology’s sake. It begs the question: How valuable is the human touch?

By Dr Rob McEvoy

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