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Local Researchers Cook Up Qay to Reduce Food-Borne Illnesses

Crystal Diagnostics is trying to beef up the nation’s food safety with a locally developed technology. The company unveiled a new system on Wednesday that uses liquid crystals to help quickly detect potentially deadly food-borne pathogens in meats, produce and other products.

Researchers at Kent State University and the Northeast Ohio Medical University (Neomed) invented the biosensor technology used in the testing system, known as the Crystal Diagnostics MultiPath System. Unlike other rapid tests on the market, the MultiPath System can be used to detect multiple pathogens at the same time, said Paul Repetto, chief executive of Crystal Diagnostics. Results are available within 30 minutes, compared to 24 to 48 hours for traditional testing methods that rely on growing cultures of contaminating bacteria, Repetto said.

“It promises to save lives, and what could be more important than that?” Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton said on Wednesday during an event at Crystal Diagnostics’ manufacturing facility in the Kent State University Centennial Research Park. The goal is to have the food-safety system on the market next year after a round of beta-testing with national food producers and processors is complete. The company is trying to capture a piece of the growing food testing market, which Repetto estimates at $3 billion to $4 billion annually.

Deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness threaten customers’ health, as well as the financial health of food producers and processors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food-borne pathogens cause about 48 million illnesses, 128,00 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths nationwide each year. Most recently, a multistate outbreak this fall from tainted cantaloupe from Colorado sickened 133 people and killed 28, according to information released this week by the CDC.

The Crystal Diagnostics Multi-Path System works by using a five-cell, disposable test cassette that contains liquid crystals inside a laminate casing. Liquid crystals are commonly used in such items as television screens and computer monitors.

Before testing, a food sample is smashed into a thick slurry, said Dan Minardi, Crystal Diagnostics’ president and chief technology officer. Antibodies for the bacteria being tested, such as E. coli or listeria, are added before the liquefied mixture is placed in three of the test cells (the two remaining cells serve as controls). The test cassette then is placed in a reader, which can display results on an iPad, computer screen or smart phone.

“This is groundbreaking technology in food-safety testing,” Minardi said. “It’s reliable, it’s cost-effective and it’s easy to use.” If the bacteria are present, the antibodies will clump and distort the liquid crystal matrix, explained Gary D. Niehaus, Crystal Diagnostics’ chief scientist and a professor of physiology at Neomed. As a result, the reader will detect light passing through and give a positive result.

Initially, at least, the Crystal Diagnostics MultiPath System is being marketed to food producers and processors for optional testing, Niehaus said. But the technology also could have future applications for everything from water safety testing to rapid-result testing in physicians’ and veterinarians’ offices. A price for the one-time use test cassette and reader hasn’t been set, Repetto said. However, he added, the cassettes likely will be more cost effective than currently available rapid tests, which can only be used to detect one pathogen at a time.

Kent State and Neomed (formerly NEOUCOM) have a licensing deal with Crystal Diagnostics that includes royalties from sales, said Maria Schimer, general counsel for Neomed and board chair for Crystal Diagnostics. “Then we’ll be able to plow that back into the research enterprise.” The universities also each have a 3 percent ownership stake in the company, officials said. Crystal Diagnostics has offices in Broomfield, Colo., a bioscience laboratory at Neomed in Rootstown Township and the manufacturing facility in Kent. The $3 million Kent facility has the capacity to eventually make 1 million testing cassettes annually, Minardi said. Local employment is expected to grow from the current six to at least 20 as production increases. So far, Crystal Diagnostics has secured $8.5 million in private-venture funding and $3.5 million in state grant funding, Schimer said.

The project is a good example of ongoing efforts to translate laboratory findings into products that can create jobs and generate alternative funding for universities at a time when state support is shrinking, Neomed President Dr. Jay A. Gershen said. “We try to take the great ideas of faculty and bring them to the mainstream of commerce,” he said.

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