Sunday 19 September 2021

Why Are Biofilms a Problem for Pharmaceutical Companies?

        Image by Krzysztof A. Zacharski. CC BY 4.0. From:

Water is one of the most important components of life, but that isn’t just limited to humans and other mammals. Innumerable forms of life thrive in water — and under some conditions, that can be dangerous to anyone or anything that takes a sip or uses the substance in otherwise sterile applications.

By Emily Newton

The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on sterilized water for its operations, but large storage containers can serve as an unwanted growth medium for biofilms. What are biofilms, why are they such a problem for the pharmaceutical industry, and what can companies do to prevent their formation?

What Are Biofilms?

Surface tension allows bubbles and lightweight bugs to skirt across the surface of a pool of water, but it also provides the perfect place for microorganisms to grow. Biofilms are communities of microorganisms attached to a surface that play a significant role in the persistence of bacterial infections.” They’re often more resistant to antibiotics than planktonic bacteria.


Biofilms can float freely on the surface of the water, and as they form, also become resistant to both external agents and harsh conditions that could damage or kill the bacteria, rendering them harmless.

Problems Caused by Biofilms

The biggest problem with biofilms isn’t in the water supply — it’s when these bacterial strains start forming colonies in humans. Some bacteria, such as Burkholderia cepacia and Ralstonia pickettii, are easily able to proliferate in water sources. In 2019, Torrent Pharma Inc. had to issue a recall for some of their pharmaceuticals due to microbial contamination with those two bacteria listed above as the prime suspects.


Other microorganisms, such as Legionella and Pseudomonas, are almost always present in water systems, though the concentrations are generally low enough that they are easy to manage and don’t pose any health risks to anyone consuming the water or using it for different tasks.


Getting rid of these colonies in pipes or storage tanks is relatively easy. Getting rid of them once they infect a human being is nearly impossible, partially because the amount of antibacterial agents necessary to treat them would be harmful to the patient, and partially because they’re most dangerous in immunocompromised patients. Biofilm colonies of those two bacteria are often found in cystic fibrosis patients, contributing to the condition’s chronic status.


The challenge here lies not in elimination from tanks, but in detection in the first place. Treating water supplies with antibacterial agents on a regular basis could help prevent the formation of biofilms, but it could also contribute to the creation of superbugs that would be even harder to get rid of.

Preventing Biofilm in Pharmaceutical Storage Tanks

Preventing biofilm formation in pharmaceutical settings isn’t always easy, but there are steps that companies can take to ensure there is no microbial contamination in their products.


Start by keeping things moving. The global pharmaceutical supply chain has taken a hit in 2020 and 2021 as things like the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit changed the way the world interacted with one another. Some supply chains couldn’t keep up with the demand, while others found themselves floundering with production lines sitting idle as they waited for orders to arrive or workers sent home because of the pandemic to return and resume operations. Tanks and storage facilities allowed to sit idle increase the chances of biofilm development. Keeping the water moving can reduce these chances, but it isn’t a foolproof method, so other tools will also be necessary.


Hot storage can prevent biofilms from forming in the first place by creating an inhospitable environment for the bacteria. Temperatures used for food pasteurization, up to 120ºC (248ºF), are usually sufficient to prevent the formation of the biofilms, though steps will need to be taken to prevent evaporation as the water is treated or stored above its natural boiling point. There will also need to be steps taken to reduce the water temperature when the water is needed.


Dry steam is emerging as a tool for killing developed biofilms that might be resistant to other treatments. One study found that a three-second steam treatment killed exposed biofilms 99.95% of the time. For comparison, a similar treatment with 10-ppm bleach (sodium hypochlorite) takes 10-20 minutes to achieve the same results.


Filtering the water through silver-impregnated systems can also help prevent biofilm formation due to the silver’s naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. This hasn’t been attempted in the pharmaceutical industry, but the technology has shown promise in communities where high bacterial concentrations in drinking water were putting health at risk.

Biofilms Are Dangerous but Preventable

Biofilms can be dangerous, especially to immunocompromised individuals, but they are also preventable. These bacterial colonies can spring up in as little as 24 hours. Detection and prevention are the two most important keys, though there are remedies available if biofilm problems are detected.


The easiest way to prevent them is to keep things moving. If that isn’t an option, high temperatures, dry steam, and even things like silver nanoparticles can help prevent biofilm formation and keep everyone safe and healthy.


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