FDA Scientists Showcase Cutting-Edge Research

By: David G. White, Ph.D.

It’s an impressive sight – 161 posters representing the work of FDA scientists involved in researching food safety and animal health.

This third annual food and veterinary science conference taking place at FDA yesterday and today demonstrates the depth and scope of research conducted by FDA scientists using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology available in the world.

Our research portfolio is rich and diverse for a good reason. We need answers to help us meet our regulatory responsibilities, whether it’s making sure the food you eat, the food your pet eats or the cosmetics you may use are safe. This means knowing how to prevent contamination in produce and other foods, which is the reason behind the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  It also means having the right technology to detect contamination to keep harmful products out of the marketplace. 

Several posters, for example, detail how we are at the forefront in our use of a technology called DNA biochips, or microarrays – small, solid supports (glass slides, silicon chips or nylon membranes) onto which thousands of different microscopic gene sequences are immobilized, or attached, at fixed locations. Such microarrays are used to quickly compare the DNA in a sample to previously-identified DNA.

Our scientists have custom-made chips that, for example, contain the DNA of every strain of five pathogens that cause foodborne illness, like E. coli and Salmonella. They’ve also identified and catalogued over 2,900 genes in harmful bacteria that are responsible for antibiotic resistance.

The data has numerous applications for consumers. For example, it can rapidly provide information about how to treat foodborne illnesses, because it can show whether a particular strain of a bacteria is genetically-resistant to an antibiotic that a physician might consider prescribing. If it is, the physician can immediately choose another antibiotic that will be more effective. 

Scientists from FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) are using the technology to monitor the emergence of pathogens that could become resistant to antibiotics due to their use in food-producing animals.

This technology also allows us to define how virulent a particular organism is – that is, its ability to cause disease — and to identify the mechanisms that make the bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

FDA has also invested in a laboratory process that determines the complete DNA sequence – or order of nucleic acids in a DNA molecule – of a pathogen at a single time. This process, whole genome sequencing, combined with DNA chips will allow scientists tracing the outbreak of a foodborne illness to say definitely, “This person was made sick by this kind of produce, grown and packaged by this company.” The proof is in the genetics. For example, E. coli is made up of about 5,000 genes. Each strain will have some genetic differences. If the genes from E. coli found on a certain bag of sprouts matches the genes of E. coli collected from a sick person, the puzzle of what caused an illness can be solved more quickly.

These projects and many others summarized at the conference were all conducted primarily by scientists from three FDA units – CVM, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Office of Regulatory Affairs. The conference being held in our headquarters in Silver Spring,Md., on Aug, 27 and 28, 2013, allows scientists from these three centers to share and discuss their work with colleagues across the agency as well as with federal partners at agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Our world-class scientists, doctors, and veterinarians include those with specialties in epidemiology, microbiology, chemistry, toxicology, and pharmacology, to name a few. We are also investing in scientists from a great variety of disciplines and specialties critical to carrying out our mandate to ensure food safety.

We’re in the midst of analyzing all current and anticipated research with the aim of prioritizing what we do so that it’s aligned with the most critical steps needed to protect the U.S.food supply. We are doing that in our labs, in the field, and in the offices where strategic plans are made.

As new hazards emerge and as we develop new technologies, our approaches will change in what is a continual challenge to keep pace with new developments.

The conference demonstrates the brilliance and commitment of our researchers. Their work demonstrates great promise for the future of the agency tasked with ensuring the safety of the food supply.

David G. White, Ph.D., is chief science officer and research director at FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

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