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Agilent, UC-Davis to Develop Food Safety Tools Based on MassCode PCR


This article has been updated from a previous version to include additional comments from Agilent.

By Ben Butkus

Agilent said today that it has inked a collaborative agreement with the University of California, Davis, in the area of food safety.

Under the agreement, Agilent and UC-Davis will develop MassCode PCR technology to rapidly identify food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella serovar subtypes, Agilent said.

In addition, Agilent has given Hailu Kinde, a professor in UC-Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, an Agilent Thought Leader Award, including unrestricted research funding and equipment donations with an aggregate value of more than $1.5 million.

"This process marks the beginning of a long-term collaboration between UC Davis and Agilent Technologies in the arena of food safety, with our shared goal of advancing science and technology to benefit society," Paul Zavitsanos, Agilent's worldwide food program manager, said in a statement.

Additional financial details of the agreement were not disclosed. However, in an e-mail to PCR Insider, Zavitsanos added that Agilent "intends to investigate this specific application of the MassCode technology as an application, not a product or guaranteed solution. At this time the efforts are investigational."

Zavitsanos also said that thus far the collaborative research effort is based on available reagents and technologies from Agilent's traditional product lines.

"Some elements of the equipment and reagent profile are prototypes under test," he said. "The investigational nature of the effort cannot hide the power and potential of this technology, however. The published results of these studies will be interesting to all scientist involved in the detailed identification and trace-back of food-borne Salmonella. We believe interest in the progress of this work will be high."

Agilent owns all rights to the MassCode PCR technology, which was developed by researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

The method involves attaching small-molecule tags with known molecular weights, called MassCode tags, to DNA primers, and performing PCR amplification on targets using the conjugates.

After unincorporated primers are removed, the tags are released by UV irradiation and analyzed by mass spectrometry.

Agilent said that the technology combines the sensitivity and specificity of PCR with the partial automation of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Because two confirming signals appear per target, the likelihood of false positives is significantly decreased, Agilent said.

In a statement, Kinde said that current techniques to identify specific Salmonella types "were developed in the previous century" and require several complex, laborious, and time-consuming laboratory procedures. According to Agilent, the new MassCode PCR tools will be able to identify the source of food-borne outbreaks in a few hours as opposed to days or weeks.

"In this era when food can be distributed across the globe in less than a day, it is critical that we have better tools to quickly identify the source of contamination before it spreads into the food supply," Kinde said. "This exciting new project is a giant step toward reducing the time it takes to get test results and will make our food safer."

Last month, Northrop Grumman said that it is working with Agilent, Columbia University, and others under a $9.6 million government contract to develop a MassCode PCR-based diagnostic system to detect biological threat exposure (PCR Insider, 11/11/10).

Have topics you'd like to see covered in PCR Insider? Contact the editor at bbutkus [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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