Maryland Company Develops Fast E. coli Test

A Maryland company has developed a fast way to detect the dangerous E. coli bacteria, which recently caused one death and sickened more than a hundred people in 23 states.

Innovative Biosensors Inc. of College Park has developed an E. coli test that gives results in less than four minutes by making infected cells glow blue. In the past, it might take up to two or three days to confirm results.

The process, originally developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for biodefense purposes, uses genetically-engineered cells taken from the immune system.

"The technology is very neat in that it looks to nature," said company president Joe Hernandez. "The best sensor out there, it turns out, is your immune system."

Scientists take antibodies, a bioluminescent protein and a sensor cell and "basically put them in a blender," said Hernandez.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacterium that causes diarrhea and can lead to kidney complications and in some cases, death. A recent outbreak in spinach has resulted in one death and 76 hospitalizations among 146 cases, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The outbreak has been traced to a produce company, Natural Selection Foods, in California. None of the cases have been in Maryland.

Innovative Biosensors' rapid test has implications throughout the food industry, from seed growers to retailers, though Hernandez declined to name the company's customers.

"We always look forward to any new technology that would allow us to be able to detect contaminants better, faster," said David Gombas, vice president for scientific and technical affairs at the United Fresh Produce Association.

"Everyone in the food industry has been working very hard since the 1990s to find ways to make this organism go away."

E. coli poses special problems because of its potency.

"E. coli is a very unique organism," said Jianghong Meng, a food science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources involved in the research. "It doesn't take many E. coli to make you sick."

Testing for such a small number of bacteria is often difficult, so sensitivity is key.

For example, before a spinach wash can be tested, it often needs to be incubated so that the number of bacteria increases to the point that E. coli can be detected. Innovative Biosensor's sensitive test requires fewer bacteria to get results.

"Our technology allows you to generate a very fast answer, but it does it in the context of a very small amount," Hernandez said.

The test is also special because it picks up E. coli and nothing else. "You don't get a false positive," said Meng.

Still, testing is only one tool in ensuring food safety, Gombas said. "We can use testing to verify that what we did, we did right."

With just 15 employees, Innovative Biosensors has won Maryland Industrial Partnership awards the last two years for its E. coli work.

The company received more than $160,000 in grants in 2004 from the state of Maryland in order to develop the test. It continues to work on a number of different screens for anthrax, tularemia and small pox and for clinical applications such as hospital infections, said Hernandez.

Given the success of the E. coli test and other projects, the privately-owned company raised $3.5 million last year and is securing an additional multi-million dollar round of financing for the coming year, said Hernandez.

The company is exploring new markets for the test all the time.

"If contamination is occurring we want to know," Gombas said of the food industry. "Fresh produce has such a short shelf life. Something that's able to give a result sooner and still be accurate is going to be more attractive to the industry."

The Capital News Service contributed to this report.