Farm Talk

Livestock

October 28, 2008

Nanotechnology improves food safety by detecting prions

Mad cow disease is a fatal neurodegenerative condition in cattle that is related to the human form of a disease that has caused the deaths of nearly 200 people worldwide. Currently, testing for this disease in cattle is a lengthy process that only occasionally results in a correct diagnosis.

With funding from USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) National Research Initiative (NRI), scientists in New York created a new device that may provide a faster, easier, and more reliable way to test for mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

This new tool targets prions, which are the cause of BSE. Prions are abnormally structured proteins that convert normal proteins into an abnormal form. Prions are responsible for forms of the neurodegenerative diseases, such as BSE in cattle, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. If often takes years before the symptoms arise that indicate the disease is present.

There are no rapid tests available to test for the presence of prions in cattle.

The only test currently available for BSE involves multiple steps, requires sacrificing an animal host, and takes time. The process requires infecting an animal with a patient's blood. Then, after a several month incubation period, the animal is sacrificed and scientists look for prions during the animal's autopsy. This method produces the correct diagnosis only 31 percent of the time.

A better method of prion detection is necessary to allay public fears, ensure the safety of the nation's food supply, and enhance international trade.

Harold Craighead and colleagues at Cornell University have developed nanoscale resonators, which are tiny devices that function like tuning forks by changing pitch with increased mass.

Craighead's group, in collaboration with Richard Montagna at Innovative Biotechnologies International, Inc., modeled the device after a similar idea used to detect bacterial pathogens. When prions bind to the resonator's silicon sensor, it changes the vibrational resonant frequency of the device. In experimental trials, the sensor detected prions at concentrations as low as two nanograms per milliliter, the smallest levels measured to date.

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