NATICK, Mass. (March 28, 2014) -- Military food inspectors may one day hold the key to avoiding foodborne illness in the palms of their hands. The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is working to develop a small, sensitive, hand-held device that will both capture and detect dangerous pathogens that can cause food-related illness.
The effort received a 2013 U. S. Food and Drug Administration leveraging and collaboration award. Under the award, scientists from Food Protection Team and Macromolecular Sciences and Engineering Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are collaborating with the FDA, Winchester Engineering and Analytical Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The award is for "Designing Handheld Resistance Based Biosensors Utilizing Conducting Nonwoven Fibers for In-Field Microbial Pathogen Detection."
NSRDEC originally came up with the idea of conductive membrane sensors and performed the initial research under the Army's 6.1 basic research programs. This research is the basis for the collaboration with the FDA and MIT. The NSRDEC scientists involved in the project include Andre Senecal, Kris Senecal, Joshua Magnone, Patrick Marek, Shannon McGraw and Philip Pivarnik.
The food inspection tool will reduce the danger Soldiers face from contaminated food. Food safety is critical to combat readiness. Soldier performance, quality of life, and health can be seriously affected by undetected pathogens in food.
"Military operations at some overseas locations where food is procured locally and food safety laws are lenient, are especially problematic. Soldiers can lose a lot of time from work because they get sick from pathogens present in water and food," Andre Senecal said. "We are starting our work with E. coli 0157:H7, but the goal is to look at all microbial pathogens and toxins that they produce."
"The leading cause of illness among troops has historically been gastroenteritis, with one of the primary culprits being E. coli," McGraw explained.
Biosensors consist of a biological component, such as an antibody or DNA that is capable of capturing, detecting and recording information about a measurable physical change in the biosensor system.
When bacteria are present on the device it impedes the flow of electricity from one side to the other side, McGraw said. This change in the electrical connection tells the user that the sensor has encountered a dangerous food pathogen.
The sensor will be a marked improvement over current detection methods because of its portability and simplicity in a field environment. Current methods use cumbersome, sometimes heavy equipment, including tubing and reagents.
Since the sensors would capture and detect on the same device, the need for some peripheral equipment is eliminated, Marek said.
"It will be portable," added Kris Senecal.
"And the device will be reusable and the detection membranes disposable, and (it) will hold up in a field environment," McGraw said.
The biosensor will concentrate pathogens that could help eliminate the need to grow the bacteria, which can take eight to 30 hours, Andre Senecal explained.
"We thought we could incorporate Kris's work on electrospinning and use nanotechnology and fibers as a way of simplifying the process of extracting and concentrating the bacteria on one platform," he said.
Kris Senecal is working to put conductive polymers on nanofibers, which she said work better at detection than a flat surface.
"Nanofibers are one-billionth of a meter and nanomaterials are cheap, one-use, and super lightweight," Kris Senecal explained. "Nanofibers may be used for food safety. Antibodies can be added to the nanofibers, which have a lot of surface area to which you can add antibodies that can catch single-cell bacteria, and other pathogens. The sensor will provide protection from E.coli, Listeria, general food threats, and Salmonella."
"It will be very helpful in preventing illness. Everyone is looking for something better, cheaper, faster," McGraw said.
"If it can be used for the military, it can be used elsewhere," Pivarnik said.
"This could also help farmers since not all farmers use safe, municipal, chlorinated water," Andre Senecal added.
"It definitely has commercial applications," Kris Senecal said.
ABOUT NATICK SOLDIER RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT AND ENGINEERING CENTER
NSRDEC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.