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Queen’s University Researchers Pioneer Food Safety Testing

With international demand amongst consumers and regulators for improved food safety never greater, a research project at Queen’s University Belfast, led by Professor Chris Elliott, and using the latest techniques in Nanotechnology, has resulted in the development of a new biosensor test kit capable of detecting an entire family of toxic drugs in foods.

The drug group, known as Nitroimidazoles, was once widely used in veterinary medicine to treat animal disease such as anaerobic bacterial and parasitic infections, but concerns over the safety of the drugs led to them being banned for use in animal production. However, due to their effectiveness in the treatment of certain diseases and the difficultly in detecting the misuse of the drugs, it has been alleged that widespread use of these drugs in some parts of the world still persists. The presence or absence of such drug residues in food commodities has major implications in respect to both food safety and international trade.

Funded by the Invest Northern Ireland ‘Proof of Concept’ programme, Professor Elliott, Head of the Food Safety Research Group at Queen’s, has now used the latest techniques in Nanotechnology to provide an innovative food-testing kit for such residues that is exceptionally rapid and reliable in comparison to the complex, costly and time-consuming monitoring systems currently available.

Many or even most of the food ingredients eaten every day contain nanoscale particles and naturally occurring nanoscale ingredients and the value of nanotechnology to the food industry has been estimated at £220 million in 2006. That figure is expected to grow to over £3 billion by 2012.

Having developed the reagents involved and optimised an analytical procedure using an optical biosensor to detect the presence of the drugs in foods, Professor Elliott and his team then sent a prototype test kit to regulatory laboratories around the world. The results of this multi-national validation exercise proved the kit could actually detect the compounds involved to the low parts per billion (ppb) levels required. This in turn, generated high levels of interest from the major regulatory bodies involved and several commercial entities, before Xenosense Ltd, a Northern Ireland based biosensor kit manufacturer agreed to commercialise the product.

Speaking about the revolutionary new kit and the commercialisation process, Professor Elliott said: “It is projects like this that illustrate the importance of the viable research being performed at Queen’s Institute of Agri-Food and Land Use, in addressing current food safety issues and in being able to transfer that knowledge through to the advantage of local industry.

“To have a company such as Xenosense Ltd, a Northern Ireland based biosensor kit manufacturer and one of our spin out companies from Queen’s through the QUBIS operation, agree to commercialise the method and offer the product to both the global market of regulatory laboratories and the Agri-Food Industry, is proof positive of the value of our work.

“The official launch of the new product is planned for later this year and we are delighted that with the help of Invest NI, we have taken a locally funded research programme and converted it into a commercially viable end product which will make a real difference to people’s lives.”

John Thompson, Director of Innovation, Research and Technology at Invest NI added: “Proof of Concept has proven itself to be a vital source of assistance for innovative research projects undertaken at both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster.

“By supporting the pre-commercialisation of leading-edge technologies emerging from Northern Ireland’s universities, Proof of Concept can support researchers as they bring inventions and ideas into the global marketplace – adding wealth to our economy and further reinforcing Northern Ireland as a world class research and development hub.”

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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