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Devices for Detecting Pathogens in Food on the Production Line

CIC microGUNE is developing the PREDETEC project, which aims to produce sensors capable of locating infectious agents in food, thanks to the application of new strategies using ultrasensitive detection.

The food we ingest is one of the paths by which agents capable of producing illnesses are introduced into our organism. Suffice a few examples to understand the repercussion of this type of pathogen: Salmonella is the most prevalent infectious agent in the EU, with more than 40 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants, Campylobacter is the prime cause of diarrhoea in developed countries and Escherichia coli was the cause of the epidemic outbreak which caused 32 deaths in Germany last year and sparked the so-called ‘gherkin crisis’.

Despite greater control, the risks associated with food pathogens are on the increase, and so it is of vital importance to certify that the food that is produced does not contain infectious elements. Precisely with this intention of finding a response to this challenge, the Basque CIC microGUNE cooperative research centre is developing new rapid diagnosis tools aimed at discovering possible pathogens present in food, within the remit of the PREDETEC project.

The objective of the project is to incorporate all the technology necessary to analyse the food sample into a single device and to detect possible pathogens present in situ rapidly and easily. The first results obtained have optimised the research within the remit of other projects financed by the Basque Government with 1.5 million euros. “We are seeking to create a low-cost technology made from disposable materials and that can be applied to food production lines, for example, without the need to transport the sample to a laboratory”, explained Mr. Sergio Arana, one of the lead researchers of the project.

Prototype in 2013

The project is currently at the stage of seeking funding to enable the development of a prototype. It is anticipated that this prototype will be ready by the end of this year (2013), in order to undergo trials in 2014. In accord with programme planning drawn up by the centre, the production stage will be in 2015.

The tools being designed in the PREDETEC project are based on new ultrasensitive detection strategies that have arisen from state-of-the-art diagnosis technologies. Concretely, the techniques being explored at CIC microGUNE are based on, on the one hand, the technique of electrochemical detection incorporated into a Lab-On-a-Chip.

On the other hand, and in a complementary manner, progress is being made in the use of localised surface plasmon resonance, an optical technique based on the study of light transmission through small apertures on a scale of a few hundred nanometres. This novel procedure is capable of discovering very tiny quantities of the element to be detected in the sample.

The combination of the most advanced techniques in biosensorisation, together with microfluidic structures for managing the samples, will give rise to a device capable of detecting the pathogen and typifying it. That is, not only will it identify the presence of Campylobacter in the sample analysed, but will also specify the strain (Campylobacter jejuni, for example).

From amongst the pathogens commonly detected in the food sector, CIC microGUNE has targeted precisely the Campylobacter jejuni strain for their laboratory trials. However, adapting the device to locate other pathogenic strains such as Salmonella or Escherichia coli is envisaged. Moreover, given that the device designed at CIC microGUNE is an open platform, implementing corresponding adaptations could also act to detect viruses. This would give it great use in animal husbandry, providing the possibility of on-the-spot analysis of animal fluids.

Benefits of the device

Achieving greater efficiency in the control of health parameters in foodstuffs is increasingly necessary because, despite controls in the production and distribution stages of the food sector, there are a number of factors giving rise to an increase in the propagation risk of food pathogens.

Amongst these, intensive methods of food production have to be cited, as well as the ongoing growth in industrial food products and which moves the world of commerce, and the increasing distances for transport of food and storage times thereof, together with the increase in human mobility. It should be highlighted that the use of this system, still at the development stage, will have a clear social impact in enhancing food safety, given that it will greatly facilitate locating points of contamination. This advance will also contribute to reducing health costs arising from outbreaks of food poisoning, due to its preventative nature. Thanks to the mentioned capacity of the device to typify the

pathogen, the generation of resistance to antibiotics in the infectious agents will be avoided. “Given that the type of agent infecting the animals in a herd is discovered within a very short space of time and with precision; for example, these animals can be quickly administered the antibiotic specific to combat this infection, and not another”, clarified Mr Jesús Ruano, another of the project’s leading researchers.

The launching of PREDETEC is a clear advance in rapid diagnosis devices, a field in which CIC microGUNE has been working in recent years, having built up a reputation and a proven leadership in large-scale European projects such as Optolabcard, Portfastflu and Labonfoil.

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