Until recently, just a few standard methods were used for foodborne pathogen identification. But these days, technological advances, including culture independent testing and whole genome sequencing, are quickly changing the space and speeding the testing process, but also sometimes complicating it.
Though government agencies maintain foremost control in protecting our food supply, many times these cutting-edge advances originate in academic institutions and laboratories within the private and non-profit sectors, and it can be tough for government to keep up with all the developments.
In response, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched food safety contests this fall, looking to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. While the approaches and end goals are slightly different, each challenge aims to spur innovation in the field of pathogen detection by tapping into communities of academics, entrepreneurs and others who do not work for government labs.
Both challenges were developed through the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, which allows federal agencies to launch prize-based competitions to find innovative solutions to tough problems. The challenges facilitate collaboration between the public and private sectors, contributing to a stronger research arena capable of birthing innovations that can make Americans both healthier and safer, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
With its Food Safety Challenge, FDA is calling for groundbreaking ideas around the detection of Salmonella in minimally processed fresh produce. With a hefty prize pool of $500,000, the agency hopes the contest will spur involvement from scientists, entrepreneurs and academics outside government walls who may not traditionally work in food safety but still have potential to expand FDA’s food testing capabilities and efforts to maintain a safe food supply.
In addition to innovative pathogen-detection processes, FDA is hoping for concepts that speed up testing without scarifying specificity or sensitivity. Think spectroscopy, quantum detection, electrical detection, whole genome sequencing and nanotubes, for example.
With speed acting as a central factor, FDA is asking participants to describe how and where in the testing process their innovation saves time. Whether the concept is completely new or works well in conjunction with existing methods is up to the participant, but the end goal ideally is to come up with a product FDA could actually use, says Dave White, chief science officer and research director at FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.
“The idea is that the challenge will encourage more rapid innovation and dialogue in how to apply these new technologies to detection and identification of foodborne pathogens, as well as possibly lead to future partnerships,” White says.
Keeping with the theme of generating broad interest among non-governmental innovators, the prize money most probably will not go to one participant alone. FDA plans to award up to five finalists with $20,000 and an invitation to participate in a field accelerator program. Each of the finalists will then present their ideas to a team of judges from FDA, CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who will select a winner to receive the remainder of the prize money.
Meanwhile, over at CDC, wheels are spinning to develop non-culture based diagnostic tests to maintain and improve public health activities for a range of pathogenic organisms. Launched in September, the agency’s No Petri-Dish Diagnostic Test Challenge is similar to the FDA Food Safety Challenge in that it aims to involve non-governmental scientists and researchers in proposing innovative solutions to testing challenges.
The task is particularly important given that foodborne outbreak surveillance networks such as PulseNet rely on isolates of bacteria in their detection and surveillance work, but new culture-independent diagnostic tests that do not rely on pure bacterial cultures are proliferating in clinical labs, posing a challenge to PulseNet’s outbreak identification efforts.
“There is general concern that if we lose the ability for PulseNet to be effective, there could be impacts on food safety,” says John Besser, deputy chief of the Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch at CDC.
Thus, PulseNet and CDC are focused on validating and developing new subtyping methods that address the shift from culture-based to culture-independent diagnostic testing. A big part of these efforts involves strengthening collaborative efforts with other stakeholders who may be able to help, including those from the food industry, academia and the non-profit and for-profit sectors.
“We are very interested in the positive effects of culture-independent diagnostic tests,” Besser says. “They will most likely be very beneficial to patients, labs, and users of lab data.”
With a $200,000 prize purse, CDC is calling upon participants to develop non-culture based methods to characterize or straintype Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) by isolating STEC from the clinical sample in such a way that important information is immediately available for public health use.
Speed and applicability are of the essence here, so CDC is requesting all solutions submitted are scalable and have a sample-to-answer turnaround time of less than two days. Submissions are due by Nov. 30, and judges will announce the winner by Dec. 15.
Like FDA, CDC sees its challenge as a way of expanding the work it’s doing and improve public health by increasing collaboration with creative thinkers who do not work for the government.
“We are pursuing a number of different options right now, but we don’t know the full world of ideas out there,” Besser says. “This really represents a mechanism for fleshing out new ideas we haven’t thought of.”
For both agencies, the multipronged approach of encouraging involvement from individuals and groups it does not traditionally work with is a way to drive more creative solutions toward addressing difficult public health challenges related to the safety of our food system.© Food Safety News