Direct evidence of bacterial biofilms in otitis media

Laryngoscope. 2001 Dec;111(12):2083-94. doi: 10.1097/00005537-200112000-00001.


Objectives/hypothesis: Bacteriologic studies of otitis media with effusion (OME) using highly sensitive techniques of molecular biology such as the polymerase chain reaction have demonstrated that traditional culturing methods are inadequate to detect many viable bacteria present in OME. The presence of pathogens attached to the middle-ear mucosa as a bacterial biofilm, rather than as free-floating organisms in a middle-ear effusion, has previously been suggested to explain these observations. The suggestion has been speculative, however, because no visual evidence of such biofilms on middle-ear mucosa has heretofore been collected. The hypotheses motivating the current study were: 1) biofilms of nontypable Hemophilus influenzae will form on the middle-ear mucosa of chinchillas in an experimental model of OME, 2) these biofilms will exhibit changes in density or structure over time, and 3) biofilms are also present on tympanostomy tubes in children with refractory post-tympanostomy otorrhea. The objective of this study was to collect visual evidence of the formation of bacterial biofilms in these situations.

Study design: Laboratory study of bacteriology in an animal model and on medical devices removed from pediatric patients.

Methods: Experimental otitis media was induced in chinchillas by transbullar injection of nontypable H. influenzae. Animals were killed in a time series and the surface of the middle-ear mucosa was examined by scanning electron microscopy (SEM) for the presence of bacterial biofilms. Adult and fetal chinchilla uninfected controls were similarly examined for comparison. In addition, tympanostomy tubes that had been placed in children's ears to treat OME and removed after onset of refractory otorrhea or other problems were examined by SEM and by confocal scanning laser microscopy for bacterial biofilms, and compared with unused control tubes.

Results: Bacterial biofilms were visually detected by SEM on the middle-ear mucosa of multiple chinchillas in which H. influenzae otitis media had been induced. Qualitative evaluation indicated that the density and thickness of the biofilm might increase until at least 96 hours after injection. The appearance of the middle-ear mucosa of experimental animals contrasted with that of uninjected control animals. Robust bacterial biofilms were also visually detected on tympanostomy tubes removed from children's ears for clinical reasons, in contrast with unused control tubes.

Conclusions: Bacterial biofilms form on the middle-ear mucosa of chinchillas in experimentally induced H. influenzae otitis media and can form on tympanostomy tubes placed in children's ears. Such biofilms can be directly observed by microscopy. These results reinforce the hypothesis that the bacterial aggregates called biofilms, resistant to treatment by antibiotics and to detection by standard culture techniques, may play a major etiologic role in OME and in one of its frequent complications, post-tympanostomy otorrhea.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biofilms* / growth & development
  • Chinchilla
  • Ear, Middle / pathology*
  • Haemophilus Infections / pathology*
  • Haemophilus influenzae*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Mucous Membrane / pathology
  • Otitis Media with Effusion / pathology*