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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #885
Program Date: 07/20/2017
Program Category: Agriculture, Alberta, Life sciences, Women in Science

Dr Linda Pilarski: Rapid Detection of E.Coli



PROGRAM #885       INTERVIEW WITH DR LINDA PILARSKI

July 20, 2017

MP3:   10.6 MB
TIME:  11:33 MINUTES

Intro:  Dr. Linda Pilarski is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta.  Her research with lap on a chip technology has laid the foundation for diagnostic devices with food safety applications.  With funding from various agencies, including Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, Dr Pilarski and her colleague Dr Lynn McMullen are commercializing a tiny multipurpose testing device for the rapid detection of e.coli and other pathogens in food processing plants. 

DR LINDA PILARSKI

CC:  LINDA, YOU'RE INVOLVED IN DEVELOPING SOME NEW TECHNOLOGY THAT WILL HELP OUT IN THE RAPID TESTING OF WHETHER OR NOT THERE'S E.COLI IN MEAT.  COULD  YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW THIS CAME ABOUT?

LP:  It's a really exciting new development I think.  And it came about largely because Dr Cornelia Kreplin at Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions who brought myself and Lynn McMullen together, with Lynn McMullen being really interested in food safety and my lab being very involved in developing miniaturized technology to test for pathogens.  It was a marraige made in heaven in many respects.

So we've just been able to do an enormous amount that allows for rapid and very, very sensitive testing for pathogens in a whole variety of kinds of foods.  

CC:  AND IT'S NOT JUST BEEF, WHICH IS WHERE YOU STARTED.  WHAT ARE SOME OF THE AREAS THAT YOU HAVE EXPERIMENTED WITH?

LP:  Yes, as you say we started with beef and beef trim and of course beef comes in many varieties, so we did ground veef 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.   Really we feel our technology is suitable for testing for pathogens in just about any food types.  

CC:  IT'S BEING CALLED A RAPID DETECTION FOR FOOD SAFETY PURPOSES.  HOW RAPID IS RAPID?

LP:  Well rapid depends on the number of pathogens that are there, of course. If there were large numbers of pathogens, we could detect them in about an hour, in just 60 minutes.  

But for the most part, these pathogen levels are often quite low, which means the bugs have to be grown for awhile before you can actually 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 and in some cases even longer.     

Whereas we can actually begin to detect even one ecoli in a pound of meat within 4 to 5 hours. 

CC:  AND WHAT WOULD BE SOME BENEFITS OR ADVANTAGES OF YOUR TECHNOLOGY?

LP:  Well at the moment, for example, in the case of beef, there are bins of beef trim that have to be tested, and it takes anywhere from two to three days for the company to get a result.   

In our case, we'd be able to get the result for them within one work shift. Which is I think important to the companies because it means that within that workshift they can actually deal with a contaminated bin.  

CC:   WHAT MIGHT BE SOME OTHER BENEFITS?

LP:  Well one of the major ones of course is speed, as I just mentioned.  And the speed , its not just things like beef.  I had a gentleman call me from Peru.  And he wanted to know, could he buy our technology because he really desperately wanted to be able to test his mangoes.  And at the moment he said he had to wait two weeks.  So the speed really does make a difference.  

But the other advantage is that our technology is quite low cost .  It's not complicated technology.  It's fast and it's low cost, which means that even in small, local processing plants, for example, it would be feasible to implement our technology.   

CC:  SO IS YOURS DONE ONSITE?  IS THAT A DIFFERENCE AS WELL WITH THE WAY THAT THE CURRENT TESTING IS DONE?

LP:  It could be done on site.  But overall at least for the meat processing plants, they don't want pathogens being tested on site because you do have to grow them to detect them.  And they don't want to grow pathogens around their meat, which makes sense.   

So it could be done in a very closely associated lab that was simply sequestered from the main meat processing.  Which would mean you could do it quickly in fairly close proximity and thereby again get your result much more quickly because you're not shipping the sample long distances for a test.  

CC:  WHAT DO THEY DO WITH THE MEAT IN THE MEANTIME?

LP:  Yes, well that's a big problem because it has to be stored.  And it has to be stored in the cold.  So  I think its a big expense for meat processors and that's why there's such an advantage to being able to detect whether or not a bin of meat has a problem as quickly as possible.   

CC:  WHAT DOES YOUR TECHNOLOGY LOOK LIKE?

LP:   It's actually really small.  The business end of it all is the size maybe of a couple of postage stamps.  And the instrument is the size of a shoebox essentially, maybe a little bigger.  So it doesn't take much bench space.  It doesn't have a big footprint.  

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 or other food process, and get that very quickly.  Which I think no other technology can do with quite that degree of multitasking.   

CC:  SO HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?

LP:   How does it work?  Well it's basically a molecular copying machine.  So the parts of the bacterium that we want to detect, that tell us whether or not its a pathogen, are actually located on the DNA.  And the DNA needs to be amplified to make multiple copies, because its hard to detect one copy.  But its pretty easy to detect millions of copies.   

So the technology basically is a pretty common technology that copies that DNA to make millions of copies which you can detect.  But the advantage is we can do it in a very small volume and we can do it very quickly.   

CC:  NOW YOU WERE SHOWING ME HOW IT WORKS ON THE COMPUTER, AND THERE WERE DIFFERENT CHANNELS OF THINGS THAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR.  AND ONE OF THEM YOU CALLED IT AN ADHESION MOLECULE.  WHAT WHAT 'S THAT?

LP:  Well in order for an e.coli, for example, to cause disease in a human gut, in your intestines, it has to be able to stick there so that when it produces its toxin, the toxin is localized.  If it can't stick to your intestinal wall, it will float right through and you won't get sick.  

So the definition of a pathogenic e.coli is that it not only produces toxin, but that also it has a way to stick to the intestinal wall.   

So the test we're doing tests for both those properties.

CC:  SO WHAT ALL WOULD BE IN THAT TEST THAT GIVES YOU A POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE RESULT?

LP:  There's a whole series of chemicals that are put into a gel like matrix and then an enzyme that's basically the copying machine.  And there are little priming molecules that say okay, I want you to copy the adhesion molecule gene.  Or I want you to copy the toxin gene.   

And so each one of those is a separate test on any given sample, and yet they are all done at the same time.  Which means that you get all you're results very quickly and you get a comprehensive picture of what the pathogen, if there is a pathogen, of what it is.   

And for example, you could test not just for e.coli You can also test for salmonella which is very pathogenic and a big problem in food contamination.  Listeria, which causes disease and campobacter which is another less well known bug which causes a lot of gastrointestinal disorders.   

So we can test for just about any pathogen that might be present in food.  At the moment, we're just doing those four.  

CC:  WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF THIS, WHAT'S INVOLVED FOR YOU?

LP:  Oh, we're very excited that all the technology has been licenced by a new Alberta company located in Edmonton that's called Ampleset.  And Ampleset wants to commercialize both our procedure for rapidly processing a food sample, but also thetechnology for testing it.   

So I think this would be a real win for Alberta and its certainly a win for the granting agencies that funded us, especially for Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, who was really responsible for allowing us to develop everything as comprehensively and in such a sophisticated  way as we have.  

CC:  WHEN YOU LOOK AT FOOD SAFETY, CERTAINLY WE'VE HAD OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS A NUMBER BIG OUTBREAKS.  I THINK OF THE MAPLE LEAF AND ALSO THE EX-L FOODS.  COULD YOU GIVE ME AN IDEA GLOBALLY WHAT THE REAL PROBLEM IS FOR US IN THE FOOD SAFETY AREA.  WHAT THE CONCERNS ARE?

LP:  Well I think the biggest concern is, you can't know whether or not you've introduced something either into the original food substance to be processed, for example, the cow.  I mean 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 actually know that unless you actually check at the end of the process and make sure there's nothing there.  

The other source is coming from the processing equpment.  For example, the fluids that are used.  If they got contaminate  in one run and transferred it into the equipment, and then the equipment transfers it onto a fresh run, that's why constant testing is really important. 

And in fruit and things like flour, the grain products, in almost all of these things, you can't eliminate the pathogens.  I think the companies do their best, but clearly because we have all these outbreaks and they keep happebubg, things keep getting contaiminated. 

And you need a reliable and really low cost testing system that's fast and reliable.  Because if it takes a long time, there's going to be less motivation to use it unless its regulated.  And if its regulated, then it becomes even more complicated for the processors.  

So it's better if they do it voluntarily.  and I think with our technology, they can readily do that.  

So I'm hoping that Amplicet will help address that need.  In fact, I'm sure Amplicet will be helping to addaress that need. 

CC:  DO YOU SEE OTHER APPLICATIONS BEYOND FOOD SAFETY FOR YOUR TECHNOLOGY?

LP:  Oh, there's an enormous number of applications.  Certainly a huge number of medical applications.  Agricultural applications, testing animals, testing water.  

For example, pipelines are really 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 kind that are pathogens in food, diffferent kinds of bacterial populations, that corrode the pipelines.   

So for example, you might want to test pipeline water.  You certainly will need to test environmental waters, cyana bacteria, pathogenic e.coli in water.  Hasse Lake out where we used to live is not useful for swimming anymore because there's pathogenic ecoli that's floating in from nearby farms, I believe.   

So it becomes very important to be able to check for these things in just about all the aspects of daily life.   

Airport security.  Testing for people who've got communicable diseases as they get on or off an airplane, for example.  There's a lot of complexity and privacy issues with that, but it certainly might become at some point . 

CC:  HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN ALL THIS MINIATURIZATION?

LP:  Well it was a long time ago, and an engineering colleague invited me to have some tea and talk about it and we spent, oh, I don't know, six or seven years drinking tea and talking and wishing we had money to do it.  And then eventually we got some funding and started working on these things.  And gradually it morphed into the technology we're using now.   

And that was thanks to funding mainly by provincial agencies.  So really the province deserves a lot of credit for this, because almost all the funding came from the province, particularly as I say, Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, but before that, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions funded us for the medical applications.   

So a lot of people had faith in us, and funded a lot of money to allow this to come to fruition to have something. A huge amount of money to produce something that doesn't very much once your done with it. 

CC:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH, LINDA.

LP:  Okay.  It's been a pleasure, Cheryl.

Dr. Linda Pilarski is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta.

 


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