A revolutionary diagnostic technique which can detect contamination in food and beverages within a few hours compared to up to three days in traditional systems is the focus of a new joint venture between Dera and industry.

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) site at Porton Down, entrepreneur David Owen and investment fund Circus Capital Technology, have joined forces to create the joint venture company called Alaska Food Diagnostics Ltd.

Alaska will develop and later market the diagnostic instrument which will detect pathogenic bacteria in foods, beverages and throughout the food distribution chain. Bugs such as Ecoli 0157, which has recently caused a number of food poisoning outbreaks, listeria monocytogenes and salmonella will be detected using the new technique.

DERA Porton Down has pioneered the new science which was first derived from military research to protect armed forces from a biological weapon attack, and further developed with MAFF’s Central Science Laboratory.

This new technology will enable contaminated samples to be identified within a maximum of eight hours, allowing food manufacturers to release even short shelf life products to market knowing they are safe. As companies face tougher food laws this technology will help decrease the chance of contaminated food ever reaching the customer. Wider applications include swab samples to check contamination of food surfaces, food processing equipment and packing lines.

The technology uses magnetic beads coated with antibodies which pick up specific bacteria from a food slurry. Following a short incubation step, to ensure that any bacteria present are actively growing, special viruses called bacteriophages are added to the mixture. These bacteriophages attack the target bacteria and break them open releasing an enzyme called adenylate kinase (AK).

The amount of AK released from the sample, and hence the number of target bacteria present, can be determined by the amount of light produced when firefly luciferase is added. Normal test methods rely on having to grow the usually low numbers of contaminating bacteria to high levels before they can be detected, since the detection technique is not very sensitive (about 100 million bacteria). This new, highly sensitive method can detect less than 100 bacteria meaning very short incubation steps are required resulting in a much shorter time to get the results Unlike other bioluminescence devices, this device is actually detecting pathogens – not just any biomatter which may, or may not, constitute a health risk.

Alaska will develop an instrument which will enable the test to be performed automatically. The final product will be tested alongside the traditional methods to fully validate it before it is released to market.

David Owen and Circus Capital Technology, which is headed up by Harvey Boulter and Paul Robinson, will invest £1.75m into the venture. DERA will develop the technology and intellectual property with this funding and will have a 50 per cent share of the company.

Defence Procurement Minister Baroness Symons said: “This is an excellent example of defence researchers working in partnership with the private sector. This technology will be of real benefit to the food industry and will help ensure the food we eat continues to be safe.”

By Stephen Blake
Editor of Food Industry News