Research in Focus: Understanding How Microbes Behave in Real Life and New Diagnostics Approaches

As part of #BiofilmWeek, we’re highlighting interesting and exciting biofilm research being undertaken across our NBIC partner research institutions by early career researchers, PhD students and our Interdisciplinary Research Fellows.

We interviewed Dr Shaun Robertson, NBIC Interdisciplinary Research Fellow (IRF) from the Biodiscovery Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Shaun’s research focuses on the development of biofilm models and dissecting these complex microbial interactions using cutting-edge technologies such as OrbiSIMS, which can be used for high resolution mapping of biomolecules in 3D. This relates to understanding biofilms in a clinical setting and also the real-life setting, as well as the development of these biofilm models. Shaun also has research in the detection of microbes through various methodologies, which is highly relevant for the urgent need for new diagnostics. 

How does your work link to biofilms?

My work links to biofilms and through the transitioning of the classical in vitro models that we’ve used for a number of decades and the fact that these don’t relevantly address how microbes behave in real life and on the diagnostic side. This links to biofilms because most biofilms in clinical infection are actually in a biofilm state, not the free-floating cell states.

Therapy Urinary Tract Infections
A polymicrobial biofilm of Candida albicans in yellow, Staphylococcus aureus in magenta and Pseudomonas aeruginosa in cyan, grown for 48h with 5% oxygen (hypoxic) then imaged on confocal microscopy.

What unmet needs do you hope your work will address?

My work seeks to address, firstly the development of the biofilm models and how these are transitioning from the classical laboratory models through to more relevant models that are mimicking the environments such as hypoxic conditions or models of the cystic fibrosis lung and secondly, through to polymicrobial biofilm models which have a number of microbial species that are present in the actual clinical infections and have interactions which are very important to understand the physiology, the response to antimicrobials and the impact these can have on the disease progression as well.

In the other strand of work that I’m undertaking and helping supervise a PhD student with is the diagnostics area. There is an urgent need for new diagnostics, especially in Cystic Fibrosis (CF), as the advent of the CF modulator therapies have drastically reduced, the quantity and quality of sputum, which is brilliant for people with Cystic Fibrosis, but leaves a hole in the diagnostic landscape as this was used as a gold standard. So, we’re looking to develop new diagnostic methodologies to address this clinical need.


Can you share any new exciting discoveries with us?

I’d like to highlight is the detection methodology we’re developing for Pseudomonas aeruginosa in Cystic Fibrosis infections. This stemmed from work that was conducted in a large Medical Research Council (MRC) clinical trial showing that these biomarkers could be used for the detection in a number of biofluids. We’ve now transitioned this work to a very rapid technology platform and through the really hard work of Simone Lucanto, a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, through the NBIC BITE Studentship. We’ve now looked at the commercialisation version of this work, which has been really exciting and has been undertaken with the Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) programme run by SetSquared and funded by NBIC.  


How has NBIC supported you in your career?

In the last four years I’ve had a number of NBIC Proof of Concept projects, working with industrial partners as a Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator. This has been great to get early pots of money for my CV and my career development and understanding how to write grant applications and then manage these awarded grants has been invaluable to my career progression.

The first Biofilms ICURe Sprint Programme has allowed me to explore the commercialisation of research, which is a really important thing to do, so that you can see the research having a direct impact and translational angle. This has been done through the recent ICURe Phase 2 that I have now started, which is getting a lot of one-to-one mentoring, learning and teaching on collaboration and license agreements, and spinout and start-up help as well, and then going on to support the potential spinout of a company from the University of Nottingham to exploit this technology platform.


Find out more


If you are interested in learning more about this project and would like to connect with Shaun please contact NBIC at

Shaun Robertson, NBIC Interdisciplinary Research Fellow from the University of Nottingham. 

Doctoral Training Centre Katie Roe