NIH funds UMaine, Notre Dame study of novel liquid coatings to reduce catheter-associated infections

A novel liquid surface coating on human catheters could help reduce protein deposition that leads to urinary tract and bloodstream infections, according to researchers at the University of Maine and University of Notre Dame who are leading a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The research, funded by a five-year, upward of $2 million NIH grant, seeks to understand how protein adhesion influences bacterial colonization on commercial catheters, and will explore the development of liquid-infused catheter surfaces for controlling protein deposition. The research will contribute to understanding how reduction of protein deposition on catheters affects urinary tract infections, and could lead to development of a new therapeutic strategy to anti-fouling devices.

The study is led by principal investigators Ana Lidia Flores-Mireles, Hawk Family Assistant Professor of the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame, and Caitlin Howell, UMaine assistant professor of biomedical engineering. This Research Project Grant — R01 — is the original grant mechanism used by NIH, and is an exciting endorsement of the biomedical research underway at the UMaine College of Engineering.

“Most research on reducing catheter-associated infections has focused on killing the bacteria using antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic resistance,” says Howell, a member of the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering faculty. “We are using a completely different approach: stopping the adhesion of the proteins that the body releases in response to the catheter, which stick to the catheter surface and make it much easier for the bacteria to adhere and start growing.”

Implemented medical devices are essential to modern health care, but also come with a suite of problems. Catheterization is one of the most common health care-related procedures. Among UTIs acquired in the hospital, approximately 75% are associated with a urinary catheter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the rising incidence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens can turn these infections into life-threatening conditions.

Howell and Flores-Mireles are researching how disrupting this process can lead to new ways of preventing infections without antibiotics. Key to this work is the use of ultra-thin liquid surface coatings that prevent proteins and bacteria from sticking. The innovation takes its inspiration from nature — the pitcher plant, with its liquid membrane that traps insects.

Howell leads the Howell Biointerface and Biomimetics Lab at UMaine, which works broadly to understand and ultimately control biological systems through surface interactions and other environmental factors. She is joined in the research by UMaine Ph.D. student Junie Fong, who will spend up to 12 weeks in the lab of Flores-Mireles, a leading expert on the role of proteins in catheter-associated urinary tract infection biology. 

“This project is very exciting,” Fong says. “We get to integrate science and engineering in a unique way, and I am hopeful that the work will provide insights to tackle catheter associated urinary tract infections without relying on antibiotics.”

The NIH grant is administered and funded through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, grant number R01DK128805, titled “Understanding the role of catheter-associated protein deposition in the development of CAUTI.”

Contact: Caitlin Howell,