An interview with Dr Kim Hardie

Dr Kim Hardie is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Nottingham. In this interview, she talks about her research into biofilms and how they contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics. In July Dr Hardie ran an exhibit at the Royal Summer Science Exhibition about how bacteria are transferred from person to person.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on bacterial pathogenicity. Building on a career tracking secreted proteins out of the cell to see how they achieve this, and how they are regulated, the team now focuses on biofilm formation and architecture. We aim to profile single cells in real time, to see what virulence related proteins they make, what regulatory circuits are functioning at any one time, and what the metabolic consequences of this are. We relate this to the effectiveness of current antimicrobials to understand antimicrobial resistance and strive to identify any bacterial ‘Achilles heels’ that could serve as novel targets for antimicrobials.

What are biofilms and how do they act as a reservoir?

Biofilms are coordinated communities of bacteria, usually associated with life on a surface. The bacteria inside are protected from the onslaught of dehydration and antimicrobials by a protective matrix of polysaccharides and DNA, which mean they can survive in adverse conditions. Inside bodies, this protection also serves to defend the bacteria against the immune system. In both scenarios the bacterial mass serves as a reservoir of infection, and the bacteria embedded even enter a dormant (persister) state to enable them to survive longer. We are particularly interested in whether biofilms in domestic appliances e.g. washing machines contain bacteria primed for infection, but we mustn’t forget that sometimes biofilms are also useful to us, e.g. those in sewage works and our healthy gut.

What are the surface coatings you are working on?

My colleagues Professors Morgan Alexander and Paul Williams used high throughput polymer screening to identify Bactigon®, which bacteria do not adhere well to. The current clinical trials are showing that catheters coated with this polymer are promising ways to prevent infections in the urinary tract. Their smoothness also means they are more comfortable for the patient.

How will your research help fight superbugs?

By understanding how bacteria attach to and live on surfaces, we hope to identify ways to eradicate them. Bacteria in biofilms are a thousand times more difficult to kill with our current antimicrobials, so we would like to find ways to use current antimicrobials more effectively or design new ones against novel targets. We are finding that some antimicrobials affect the treatment of others, and so looking at different combinations will also be important. We have recently had one novel delivery system accepted for publication that combines a traditional antimicrobial with a novel anti-virulence antimicrobial in a polymer to create an effective drug even in biofilms (Singh, N., Romero, M., Travanut, A., Monteiro, P., Jordana-Lluch, E., Hardie, K.R., Williams, P., Alexander M., and Cameron Alexander, C. (2019) Dual bioresponsive antibiotic and Quorum Sensing inhibitor Combination nanoparticles for treatment of Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms in vitro and ex vivo. Accepted by Biomaterials Science).

Who do you collaborate with on your work?

I collaborate with surface scientists (Professor Morgan Alexander and Professor Cameron Alexander, University of Nottingham) for the work described above. Physicists (Professor Ian Gilmore and Dr Paulina Rakowska, National Physics Laboratory) to use the only two Orbi SIMS in the country to detect antimicrobials in biofilms. Professor Jon Aylott (University of Nottingham) who has designed novel optical nanosensors to detect environmental microniches including pH and oxygen within biofilms in real time. Chemists (Professor Mike Stocks, University of Nottingham) to create molecules to inhibit bacterial processes. Infection control and prevention teams in the NHS to study the transfer of bacteria onto surfaces and try and prevent colonisation that leads to infection (Natalie Vaughan, Fay Spencer, Dr Jacqueline Randle). Not to mention engineers (Dr Joel Segal and Professor Ed Lester, University of Nottingham) to build interactive devices for the public to use and aid their education and social scientist (Professor Brigitte Nerlich) to assess the behavioural changes that might occur. Don’t forget microbiologists and immunologists are naturally cross disciplinary (Professor Luisa Martinez-Pomares, Professor Miguel Camara, Professor Paul Williams).

What did your Royal Society Summer Science exhibit focus on?  

Showing the public how bacteria transfer to other people using the Great Greetings Experiment to compare handshakes, high fives, and waving. Conveying how this impacts the health service by mapping transfer from the hands of healthcare workers to the near touch sites and patients in hospitals via LADAR mapping in a simulated ward that created an animation ‘The scales of resistance’. Then the way the Bactigon® coats catheters to prevent bacteria attaching if they settle on one by dipping magnetic catheters into a bowl of ball bearings, and finally using an air-pump antibiotic syringe race to see if biofilms make it harder to eradicate bacteria (beads) within a catheter tube. These activities were supported by a comic strip and pack of top trump cards.

Why did you join the Microbiology Society?

To go to scientific conferences and hear excellent, international science.

You are an active member within the Society, tell us more about your involvement.

Being a part of the governance body has exposed me to the importance and reward of interacting with policy makers and the public, which has been fun and motivating both for general personal reasons and also for professional development of my science and career. The roles enabled me to build up experience of committee work, so I could make a difference to the community and also helped me mature into leadership roles including chairing and being an academic director within my department. The breadth is amazing, and has included scientific conference planning, editing and other roles within publications, finance and importantly equality and diversity. I have also benefited from applying this experience within other professional societies (the Royal Society of Biology) which has expanded the network of scientists that I have interacted with.

Why is it important to engage with societies like ours?

It is very important. The opportunities and resources are immense. The people within the societies are incredibly helpful and inspiring, and building a network of other scientists has led to a wealth of opportunities e.g. presentation of external seminars, joint projects and external examination experience.

What would you say to anyone thinking about joining the Society?

Do it! It is a financial no brainer if you want to register for a conference, and it will expand your horizons and professional potential. The science is excellent at the meetings and in the journals and having access to the resources for outreach is very useful. The network of scientists and society staff that you build up will be a life-long benefit, and enable you to also have a lot of fun in the process.