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01/05/2019 – Science & Technology / Food Safety / Sensors

Pathogen Detection: Solving a multi-billion-dollar industry challenge


An MIT spin-off is seeking to transform food safety testing via pioneering rapid pathogen detection. Soon to enter the market, its affordable, easy-to-use handheld sensor can indicate the presence of bacterial contaminants in food in seconds.


“This is a $10 billion market and everyone knows it.” Those are the words of Chris Hartshorn, CEO of a new MIT spin-off – Xibus Systems – who aims to make a splash in the food industry with the firm’s new food safety sensor.


Its technology is based on specialised droplets – called ‘Janus emulsions’ – that can be used to detect bacterial contamination in food.


The use of Janus droplets to detect bacteria was developed by a research team led by Tim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, and Alexander Klibanov, the Novartis Professor of Biological Engineering and Chemistry – the idea being to create a synthetic particle that shares the same dynamic qualities as the surface of living cells. 


Binding to bacteria


The liquid droplets consist of two hemispheres of equal size – one made of a blue-tinted fluorocarbon and one made of a red-tinted hydrocarbon. The hemispheres are of different densities, which affects how they align and how opaque or transparent they appear when viewed from different angles. They are, in effect, lenses. What makes these micro-lenses particularly unique, however, is their ability to bind to specific bacterial proteins. Their binding properties enabled them to move, flipping from a red hemisphere to blue-based on the presence or absence of a particular bacteria, like Salmonella.


“We were thrilled by the design,” Swager said. “It is a completely new sensing method that could really transform the food safety sensing market. It showed faster results than anything currently available on the market, and could still be produced at very low cost.”


Janus emulsions respond exceptionally quickly to contaminants and provide quantifiable results – ones that are visible to the naked eye or can be read via a smartphone sensor. 


And having already secured nearly US$1 million in seed funding from a variety of sources since inception of the company last year, and also being accepted into Sprout – a highly respected agri-food accelerator – Xibus Systems is evidently off to a swift start.


The need for speed


Speed also matters within the context of the technology itself. In the field of food safety testing, the standard practice is to culture food samples to see if harmful bacterial colonies form. Yet that process can take many days, and often can only be performed offsite in a specialised lab.


While more rapid techniques exist, they are expensive and require specialised instruments – which are not widely available – and still typically require 24 hours or more from start to finish. In instances where there is a long delay between food sampling and contaminant detection, food products could have already reached consumers hands, with potentially devastating consequences. Beyond raising the alarming prospect of illness and death, the inevitable food recalls that follow result in tremendous waste alongside substantial lost profits. North America alone is estimated to lose US$5 billion annually in recalls – and that does not even account for the indirect costs incurred as a result of brand damage, including market share losses that can last for years.


It seems obvious, then, that the food industry would vastly benefit from a sensor that could provide fast, accurate readings of the presence and amount of bacterial contamination on-site. The Janus emulsion technology has many of the elements required to meet this need – and Xibus Systems is therefore working to improve the speed, accuracy, and overall product design to ready the sensor for market.


A game-changer for food safety?


Xibus is currently developing a prototype for initial market entry, or rather two different products: a smartphone sensor that is accessible to everyday consumers, and a portable handheld device that is more sensitive and would be suitable for industry. If the team is able to build a successful platform that meets industry needs for affordability, accuracy, ease of use, and speed, it could in theory apply that platform to any situation where a user would need to analyse organisms that live in water. This would open up many sectors in the life sciences, including water quality, soil sensing, veterinary diagnostics, as well as fluid diagnostics for the broader healthcare sector. 


Fundamentally, the Xibus team are keen to nail their product right off the bat. “Since food safety sensing is a crowded field, you only get one shot to impress your potential customers,“ Hartshorn remarked in closing. “If your first product is flawed or not interesting enough, it can be very hard to open the door with these customers again. So, we need to be sure our prototype is a game-changer. That’s what’s keeping us awake at night.”

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