Do you remember the major Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe a few years back? Gary Niehaus, Ph.D., a professor of physiology, does. And as one of three recipients of the inaugural NEOMED faculty researcher grants awarded by the Research, Entrepreneurship, Discovery and Innovation Zone (REDIzone®) program in the 2018-19 year, he’s using his $10,000 award to advance technology to detect such pathogens.
As the chief scientist for Crystal Diagnostics, Ltd., a company that uses liquid crystal-based detection technology to detect bacteria in food, Dr. Niehaus studies Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) o157, researching the detection of biologic pathogens – that is, bacteria and viruses that are found in humans.
“We test meats – both ground beef and cuts of beef like beef tenderloin – and poultry, as well as lettuce and tomatoes. We’re also starting to look at eggs, because salmonella is a major problem, too,” says Dr. Niehaus. When a fast-food chain reports a problem due to foodborne pathogens, this scientist understands the issues involved.
Years of diligent work after receiving a large grant to develop a device to detect foodborne bacteria, Dr. Niehaus is now getting close to taking his technology to market. “This highly automated device essentially allows someone to take a sample, put it in the unit, walk away and then get an answer from the device within an hour,” he explains.
Dr. Niehaus is currently focused on certifying the new automated unit through an evaluation by an organization called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) International. “AWOC runs a peer-reviewed evaluation of the way in which you certify your technology. Basically, what they are certifying is what you say the technology will do and what it actually will do. Everybody, even companies like 3M and DuPont, has to go through this certification,” Dr. Niehaus says.
Clinical uses, too
The diagnostic units are designed to be able to detect biologic pathogens anywhere. One of the cases in which you have high concentrations of bacteria are in chronic wounds in patients. “These are wounds that just won’t heal – diabetics run into a lot of problems like this,” says Dr. Niehaus. Among the six major bad-actor bacterias, the two that all of us non-scientists tend to know are staph infections and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The latter, usually referred to as Mersa (for MRSA), it’s the rare but famously dangerous one that people sometimes acquire during hospital stays.
With support from the new REDIzone® grant, Dr. Niehaus is setting up a process to collect samples from various chronic wound patients in Northeast Ohio, then test those samples to determine if the units can accurately identify the given pathogens. If his new device could distinguish regular staph from MRSA, says Dr. Niehaus, ‘’That would be a pretty big deal.’’