Research in Focus: Biofilm, Mutants and Mass Spectrometry

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 Winifred Akwani, a PhD student from the University of Surrey and the National Physics Laboratory, to learn about her work surrounding the relationship between biofilms and antibiotic resistance in patients suffering with cystic fibrosis.


Tell us about your project title and what sector your work relates to

My research project is titled, ‘Profiling the mycobacterial biofilm in multidisciplinary mix of mutants and Mass spectrometry’. The project sits within the healthcare sector and is all about understanding why biofilms are causing an increase in antibiotic resistance, especially in immune-compromised patients suffering with cystic fibrosis. It also falls within the physics space due to the use of secondary ion mass spectrometry imaging. I use this imaging technique to visualise antibiotic penetration. I also develop methodology for sample preparations to enable biological samples to be studied by mass spectrometry imaging.


Why is your research important and what challenges do you face?

It’s really important to provide patients with a clear message to comply to antibiotics when doctors prescribe them, as these biofilms are forming within the lungs of immunocompromised patients and also potentially relatively healthy patients now too. Now more than ever we must take care of ourselves. A lot of focus has been on Covid-19, but we do still have antibiotic resistance species out there. Even with the new drugs that are being developed, there is resistance to them and we are seeing the shortfalls in this because of biofilms, and biofilms are a major concern in healthcare.


How do you see your work distinctive from similar research in your field?

My project is mycobacterial, so there is a lot of work out there focused on this subject, but I work on what you call non-tuberculosis micro bacteria, so these have very similar characteristics to tuberculosis, but grow at a much faster pace, and are therefore classed as ‘rapidly growing micro bacteria’. These can be found in the environment, in the soil, and in common places that people visit. It is a niche area that we don’t know a lot about, and there are over 170 of these species, of which I am only focusing on two types. These two types have different susceptibilities to antibiotics, and combined with the biofilm formation of these species, it makes it twice as hard to find treatments for them, which results in longer waiting times for treatment (around 12-18 months), so it is important we find a solution. We are currently trailing a cocktail of antibiotics against these species at the moment.


Have any targets been achieved? 

I have tested the species on potential drugs, and have discovered they are quite effective against the antibiotics and biofilm-formed species. Results have been positive so far, and using mass spectrometry imaging has been quite progressive, in terms of observing the penetration into these drugs and seeing if there is a difference between the biofilm formed species and the non.


Have you been involved in any public engagement or outreach related to your work?

In 2019 prior to the pandemic, I was able to take part in a biofilm awareness outreach activity with the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, aimed at school children and the general public. It was quite fun and really expanded my mind, to think of ways to relay scientific information in a digestible and easy to understand format. In relation to my project, it made me think ‘what is it that I am trying to understand about a biofilm and biofilm formation?’ especially as biofilms are not well-known characterized species.


Find out more


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


Winifred Akwani, PhD student with the University of Surrey and the National Physics Laboratory. 

Biofilm Mutants Mass Spectrometry