chemical signal as a reporter.
But the bottleneck is not always bacteria detection, Nugen said. Once the infection has been found, it’s more about
separating the bacteria from the sample
so they can be concentrated.
“We’re engineering the phages to be
magnetic so we can actually put them
in a solution, they go out and bind,
start infecting the bacteria, and then
we can yank them all to the side and
concentrate them,” Nugen explained to
Nugen’s multidisciplinary lab at
Cornell University is currently working
on advancing this nanobot platform,
which may end up being commercialized
as a portable kit, rather than a test for
a traditional lab setting. One part of the
lab is focusing on changing the range of
bacteria the phages can and will infect,
others are working on engineering the
phages to attach to these magnetic particles, while still others are working on
ways to make detection more sensitive.
Price and speed are two of the main
reasons Nugen is focusing on developing his research into a kit.
“When I started thinking about it,
the resources an average or small dairy/
produce farmer would have is not too
different from the resources in a remote
clinic in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Nu-
gen. “In most cases, the kit you would
need would be essentially the same. A
farmer can’t have a $50 test they have
to run all the time—it has to be a couple
dollars. The constraints are similar
enough to apply what I learned from
making devices for resource-limited
areas to farms here in the U.S. as well.”
A rapid nanotech test may have
been of use in the most recent
outbreak, as experts believe irrigation
water was the most likely culprit in the
contamination of the lettuce. Currently,
the FDA requires farmers to test their
irrigation water, but it takes days for the
test to confirm the presence or absence
of bacteria. With perishable food,
farmers do not have the luxury to wait.
Hence, compromised food can make it
to a distribution point, such as a grocery
store, and even into consumers’ hands.
“To devise a test with instant results
is very, very difficult,” Nugen said. “So
we’re trying to make something that at
least does it in just a few hours. Essentially, the shorter your assay time, the
less compromised a product you would
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Beyond food safety, Nugen and his
group are looking at using bacterio-
phages in a medical environment, for
phage therapy—or the therapeutic use
of bacteriophages to treat pathogenic
bacterial infections. Phage therapy was
popular decades ago, until the discovery
of antibiotics. However, with antibiot-
ic-resistance currently on the rise, some
researchers have turned back the clock
to reinvestigate phage therapy.
Bacteriophages are more specific than
antibiotics, and typically harmless to
the host organism. They do have some
of the same limitations of drugs though,
as bacteria could eventually become
resistant to the phage.
“The thing is, though, it’s a lot easier
to find new phages than it is to find new
antibiotics,” Nugen said.