Biosensor-based tests for potentially dangerous toxins in shellfish developed by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast are significantly faster, cheaper and more reliable than existing methods, project leader Professor Chris Elliott told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
They were also able to detect a far wider range of shellfish toxins, which at best, could cause a mild bout of food poisoning and at worst could cause paralysis and death, he said.
“Toxins in shellfish are a complex family. HPLC tests can detect most of them but our methods can detect all of them.”
Results in 10 minutes, instead of two days
He added: “Currently, you’ve either got animal testing techniques whereby you inject extracts of the shellfish into animals and monitor the effects, or send samples off to a lab for HPLC tests and wait two days for the results.
"But this is difficult, costly and not 100% reliable.”
The method developed by Elliott’s team involves dipping shellfish samples into a bath of water and adding unique ‘detector proteins’, which seek out and lock onto toxins in mussels, oysters, cockles and scallops, said Elliott, who heads up the Institute for Agri-Food and Land Use at Queen’s.
“If the proteins bind to a toxin they give off a signal that we can detect simply by putting a dipstick into the water and looking for a colour change, just like a pregnancy test. This means we can deliver results in less than 10 minutes at a fraction of the cost.”
It was too early for detailed costings, but it was feasible that the new system could enable firms to move to a positive-release system whereby all products were screened for toxins at source on fishing boats before being released into the food supply chain instead of the current system whereby samples were sent to labs for analysis, he said.
Tests on fishing boats, not labs
Queen’s, which has signed a contract with UK-based Neogen Europe to commercialise the tests, has also been awarded a $500,000 grant from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to further develop the technology so that tests can be conducted on fishing boats as soon as shellfish are caught, he said.
“We’re hoping to have the first commercial product ready in the next 12 months.”
The research is part of the EU-funded Biocop research programme, which involves 32 international research partners, said Elliott. "This is the result of more than six years of research."