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Samples - Virus detection kits prevent food poisoning outbreaks

Virus detection kit prevents food poisoning outbreaks


Imported foods such as shellfish and soft fruits may be contaminated with harmful viruses. Until recently, there was no adequate technology for large-scale virus control of such imports. Together with the French company Ceeram, the University of Barcelona has developed a user-friendly kit to detect hepatitis A in food, which allows for the prevention of virus outbreaks.


Every day, dozens of cargo ships enter European harbours to deliver shellfish from South America. Their loads are usually safe, and thousands of Europeans can enjoy their oyster dishes. There is always a small chance, however, that some of the oysters are contaminated by a virus such as hepatitis A. This virus may wreak havoc among unsuspecting consumers: just a few virus particles are enough to cause severe food poisoning. An outbreak may affect thousands of people, even killing some of them.

A hypothetical scenario? By no means, says Albert Bosch, microbiologist at the University of Barcelona. “There have been several outbreaks of hepatitis A in Europe that were traced back to shellfish from Peru,” he says, “with hundreds of people being affected. As a result, Europe banned all seafood imports from Peru for many years. This was disastrous for the Peruvian trade.” Similarly, in Germany, strawberry yoghurt cake turned out to be contaminated and was withdrawn from the market in 2012, and sun-dried tomatoes were implicated in several virus outbreaks in Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands over the past few years.

“Food-borne viruses are a real threat to public health,” states Bosch, “but the problem is that the EU currently has no regulations in place to control imports for viruses.” The reason for this, as the scientist explains, is that until recently, there was no technology available that would allow for large-scale inspections of imported foods. Samples would have to be taken to specialized laboratories, and the results of their tests would not be available for a few days or even weeks. Even apart from the fact that such measures would be expensive, they would hamper the trade in fresh and frozen foods.


Bosch and his colleague Rosa Pintó at the University of Barcelona knew that there was a solution within reach. Laboratories around the world are already working with fast and efficient kits to detect several kinds of viruses. “What was needed,” says Bosch, “was a simple to use, standard procedure that could be carried out by people without a scientific background. We decided to develop a kit for the detection of hepatitis A that would meet these demands, and be suitable to be used in the context of any future EU regulation. And to do that, we needed a partner who could bring this technology to the market.”

Bosch and Pintó contacted Fabienne Loisy, microbiologist and co-founder of the French company Ceeram – the European Centre for Expertise and Research on Microbial Agents in Nantes. This company develops tools for the genetic detection of pathogens. “Ceeram is one of the leading companies in this field,” says Bosch, “so we knew that our ideas would be in excellent hands.”

One of the main innovations, as Bosch explains, is that the newly developed kit uses a strong safety mechanism: all critical steps in the assay are separately controlled. The kit not only checks the sample for the presence of the target virus, in this case hepatitis A, but also for one other virus, which is added to each sample that is analysed. “This is to make sure that the kit is working correctly,” Bosch explains, “in other words: if it doesn’t detect the control virus, you know that something is wrong.”


One of the patents that the University filed for its invention applies to the use of this extraction control. The second patent covers the specific technology for virus detection, which is based on PCR: the polymerase chain reaction which is used to quickly amplify predetermined fragments of genetic material. The challenge, as Bosch explains, is to identify specific bits of genetic material that are characteristic for hepatitis A, and to make sure that only those are amplified during the PCR.


“One of the main advantages of this invention is its high sensitivity,” Fabienne Loisy at Ceeram elaborates. “This kit is able to detect as few as ten virus particles in a sample. Ten virus particles are enough to make a person sick and to cause an outbreak. Our contribution is that we converted this invention into an application that can be used by local service labs: it is easy to use and ready to use, it is standardized, and the technology has been validated by different labs.”

Ceeram introduced the kits in France in 2009. Business rapidly spread into Europe, and now even stretches as far as the US, Southeast Asia, South America and North Africa. “There is an enormous demand for this application,” Loisy indicates. “Last year, we had more than 200 percent growth in sales compared to 2011.” This demand is both market driven – companies are keen to prevent outbreaks, loss of reputation as well as the unnecessary destruction of food batches – and policy driven. “The EU is currently working on regulations that will make virus control of imported foods compulsory,” she says. “Of course the EU will not specify which particular kit will have to be used for this purpose, but it will describe the minimum requirements. We are confident that our kit meets those future requirements.”


Lurdes Jordi works at the Fundació Bosch i Gimpera, the technology transfer office of the University of Barcelona. “This case is a great example of technology transfer,” she says. “Our researchers and those at Ceeram have a shared background, which makes their cooperation quite natural.” Ceeram is a relatively small company compared to multinationals that develop similar technologies, Jordi points out. This is actually an advantage: smaller companies are much more flexible and efficient when it comes to acquiring new technologies and moving them from the planning phase to implementation and marketing. “And it is much easier to reach agreement with them.” The patents of the technology lie with the University of Barcelona, she explains, which has an exclusive licence agreement with Ceeram. According to the contract, Ceeram pays the University a percentage of the royalties, plus an annual fee, and is investing in the further development of the technology. “Initial funding for this research came from the Spanish Government,” Jordi adds, “but at this point, Ceeram is bearing the development costs.”


Expanding the market is not the only ambition of the partners involved. Both Bosch and Loisy have ambitions to take their technology one step further. Loisy: “We are still improving our kit to enable it to work with dry as well as wet reagents, and make it even more sensitive. Also, we are working on new applications to detect viruses in food, environmental and clinical samples.”

Bosch is confident that virus detection will become much more common in the food sector than it is today. “Virus control will become a routine activity,” he predicts, “not just in the context of seafood, greens and soft fruit, but perhaps also for hard foods such as apples, and hard surfaces such as kitchen desks.”



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Name of the product:Kit for the detection of hepatitis A in food, environmental and clinical samples

Research institute:University of Barcelona, Spain: Department of Microbiology

Marketed by:CEERAM, France

On the market since:2009

Noteworthy:Kits are also available for other viruses, including noroviruses, and for various bacteria and parasites


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In the spotlight: hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by a virus. The virus spreads via faeces, and is usually contracted by the consumption of faecally contaminated food or water. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhoea. These symptoms usually last for a period of around two months, although some patients remain ill for over six months. The infection leaves no lasting symptoms.

In regions where adequate sanitation is lacking, for instance in some developing countries, the circulation of hepatitis A virus is high. However, the disease is usually contracted in early childhood, and 90 percent of young children experience no symptoms after infection. Infection results in lifelong immunity, so adults are usually not affected in these regions. The disease is more problematic for incidental visitors to the regions, and when the import of food leads to outbreaks in industrialized countries.

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