Alberta researchers develop quick and effective way to detect pathogens in food

Nov 6, 2017

Dr. Lynn McMullen, a microbiologist by trade, is largely interested in food safety. Dr. Linda Pilarski, an experimental oncologist, focuses primarily on miniaturizing health-testing technology to test for pathogens. Together, they have created a postage-stamp-sized device that can quickly test for pathogens like E. Coli in meat, flour and a variety of foods in processing plants around the world. The technology is portable and shaves significant time from current practices. The researchers’ device has garnered attention from companies looking to commercialize and deploy.

To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Pilarski.

This device is being called a rapid detection for food safety purposes. How rapid is rapid?
It depends on the number of pathogens. If there are large numbers of pathogens, we can detect them in about an hour. But, for the most part, pathogen levels are often quite low, which means the bugs must be grown for a while before you can properly detect them. And, that adds a time constraint to almost all the commercial tests that are currently available. So, it takes at least overnight. In some cases, even longer. Whereas, we can begin to detect even one E. coli in a pound of meat within 4 to 5 hours.

What foods have you experimented with?
We started with beef and beef trim. Beef comes in many varieties, so we did ground beef, which is a little tougher. We’ve done chicken. We’ve done lunch meat. We’ve done hot dogs. We’ve done yogurt. We’ve done bean sprouts. We’ve done flour. We’ve done peanut butter. And, we’re working on more. We feel our technology is suitable for testing for pathogens in just about any food

What are the benefits or advantages of your technology?
In the case of beef, there are bins of beef trim that must be tested. It takes anywhere from two to three days for the company to get a result. In our case, we’d be able to get results for them within one work shift. This is important because it means companies can deal with a contaminated bin quickly. I had a gentleman call me from Peru. He wanted to know if he could buy our technology because he wanted to test his mangoes. Right now, he waits two weeks for testing. The speed really does make a difference. Another advantage is that our technology is quite low cost. It’s not complicated technology. It’s fast and its low cost, which means that even in small, local processing plants, for example, it would be feasible to implement.

Is this testing done onsite? Is that different than how current testing is done?
It could be done onsite. But, at least for the meat processing plants, they don’t want pathogens being tested onsite because you have to grow them to detect them. And, they don’t want to grow pathogens around the meat. So, it could be done in a very closely associated lab that was sequestered from the main meat processing. Which means you could do it in fairly close-proximity and get your results more quickly because you’re not shipping the sample long distances for a test.

What does your technology look like?
It’s small; the size of a couple of postage stamps. And the instrument is the size of a shoebox, maybe a little bigger. So, it doesn’t take much bench space. And yet, the other advantage in addition to speed, is that we can do multiple samples on one run. So that means you could have, for example, 7 to 10 of your meat samples being tested for multiple targets to make sure if and what kind of pathogen might be present in the meat. No other technology can do with quite that degree of multitasking.

When you look at the commercialization, what’s involved?
We’re very excited that the technology has been licensed by a new Alberta company located in Edmonton called Ampleset. They want to commercialize both our procedure for rapidly processing a food sample, but also the technology for testing it. I think this is a real win for Alberta. It’s certainly a win for the granting agencies that funded us, especially for Alberta Innovates, who was responsible for allowing us to develop everything as comprehensively and in such a sophisticated way as we have.

When you look at food safety, we’ve had a number big outbreaks over the years. Could you give me an idea what the real problem is globally in the food safety area?
The biggest concern is you can’t know whether you’ve introduced something into the original food substance to be processed. For example, the cow. Most cows will have some degree of pathogenic E. coli. And the idea is, you want to wash it off before you ever process it. But that doesn’t always work. And you can’t know that unless you check at the end of the process and make sure there’s nothing there. The other source is coming from the processing equipment. For example, the fluids that are used. That’s why constant testing is important.

Do you see other applications beyond food safety for your technology?
There’s an enormous number of applications. Certainly, a huge number of medical applications, agricultural applications, testing animals, testing water. For example, pipelines are interesting. Pipelines get badly contaminated. And because they want to save water, they continually recycle water and build up bacterial populations. Not at all like the pathogens in food; different kinds of bacterial populations that corrode the pipelines. You might want to test pipeline water.

Interview by Cheryl Croucher (originally appeared in Innovation Anthologies)

Photo: Technology development team from left to right: Dammika Manage, Jana Lauzon, Lynn McMullen, Patrick Pilarski, Linda Pilarski.