Unique collaboration wins praise—and results

Dr. Sabah Bidawid says it feels good to hear words of praise and how impressed his peers in other countries are when he tells them about the scope and magnitude of the Food and Water Safety (FWS) research project he coordinates.

Dr. Bidawid is Chief of the Microbiology Research Division at Health Canada and the co-ordinator of the FWS project funded through the Government of Canada's Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI). "I've had the opportunity to talk about the project at a number of national and  international meetings and conferences," says Dr. Bidawid. "There has been tremendous interest in the project—not just for what we're doing, but for how we are doing it."

Combining resources

The FWS project is one of two multi-departmental, multi-year research projects launched with GRDI support in 2011. Like the Quarantine and Invasive Species (QIS) project, the FWS project combines scientific and technical expertise from a number of science-based Government of Canada departments and agencies in using genomics to better detect and manage risks to the health, safety and economic well-being of Canadians — from protecting our agricultural trade to ensuring Canada continues to be ranked among the best in the world for food and water safety.

Along with Health Canada, seven other federal departments and agencies are involved in one or both projects: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC); the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA); Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO); Environment Canada (EC); the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC); Natural Resources Canada (NRCan); and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

Unprecedented

Dr. Patrice Bouchard, AAFC Research Scientist, is the coordinator of the QIS project. He says the collaborative approach enabled through the GRDI has allowed for an unprecedented and valuable sharing of information and expertise. "No single department or agency has the capacity to produce all the genomics data and tools we need to identify potential threats quickly and accurately," says Dr. Bouchard. "Departments have developed different areas of expertise according to their own needs and mandates, but by combining all those resources and putting them to work in a coordinated way, we can do more and we can do it faster."

Information sharing leads to new discoveries

AAFC Research Scientist Dr. André Lévesque, scientific advisor for the QIS project, says the information sharing is helping to generate broader applications. "The genomic information collected by all departments is going into one large database. Some of the fungal groups we are working on at AAFC that can attack food crops are also responsible for some diseases in fish," says Dr. Lévesque, "So the information we are collecting here at AAFC is helping our colleagues at DFO protect aquatic species, while we are likely to gain new insights into diseases that can damage the agricultural industry from marine data. That might never have happened in the past."

Coordination key to progress

Health Canada microbiologist Nathalie Corneau, Project Manager for FWS, says the coordination of resources is essential. "We have strong accountability structures and timelines for different parts of the project," says Ms. Corneau. "We need that, because while we are all working on our own little pieces, the awareness of what others are doing ensures the different parts will fit together at the right time to keep the whole moving forward."

Ms. Corneau says being part of a team with experts from other departments makes a huge difference. "In our lab, for example, we are developing a new and faster method to extract bacteria from a food sample for testing, but the equipment we need to prove the concept does not exist," says Ms. Corneau. "With the collaboration enabled through GRDI, while we are developing the protocol, the engineers at NRC are building the machine we need to prove the theory. That saves time and it also ensures the machine we get is exactly what we need."

Benefits to economy, health and safety

Dr. Bouchard, the QIS Project Coordinator, says the research is already proving its value in protecting Canada's multi-billion dollar agricultural trade. "For example, using traditional methods, it can be very difficult to distinguish a quarantine species of fungi from a harmless species," says Dr. Bouchard. "With the genetic testing and identification capacity we are building, we have already been able to show that what was thought to be a damaging species of fungi in a Canadian crop was in fact a harmless variant."

Meanwhile, the FWS project is on track to deliver technology that will enable authorities to detect and identify the source of serious food-borne disease microbial agents far faster than is possible today.

"Through our combined efforts, we are developing state of the art technologies that will enable us to detect the presence and identity of potentially deadly bacteria, like E. coli O157:H7, in food in a matter of hours instead of days," says FWS coordinator Dr. Bidawid. "We are working toward a portable version of the testing device that would enable rapid testing of food and water in any location,  from a laboratory to meat processing plant to a border inspection station. We are already getting inquiries from companies interested in potential commercialization of this technology."

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