Cutting-Edge, Essential Science on Display

Veterinary Stem Cell Research Poster

Rudell Screven, left, who conducts research for FDA, explains her work on stem cell therapy in animals to John Mussman and Min Zhu at the Third Annual FDA Foods and Veterinary Medicine Science and Research Conference.

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There are no models of exploding volcanos or the solar system on display. At this science fair—officially called the Foods and Veterinary Medicine Science and Research Conference—posters display world-class, state-of-the art science.

More than 160 posters at the conference summarize research done primarily by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists. They address questions like these:

  • How can we ensure that the kind of fish consumers think they're buying is the kind they've actually bought?
  • What intervention strategies are the most effective at reducing contamination of fresh produce with disease-causing organisms such as E. coli and Salmonella?
  • How do deadly Listeria bacteria create a film that allows the bacteria to cling to surfaces and to resist being sanitized?

"Much of this is work that no one else is doing, and it's critical to keeping our food supply safe," said David G. White, Ph.D., chief science officer and research director at FDA's Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

The conference, held at FDA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., on Aug. 27 and 28, offered FDA researchers involved in food safety issues an opportunity to network and to share their cutting-edge research with colleagues and federal partners. In addition to displays, the conference included speeches by leading scientists.

"Many people think of FDA as an agency that just issues regulations," said White. "However, making good decisions about regulations requires us to carry out research that is both on par with that in industry and academia, and that stays ahead of the curve."

That mission is demonstrated in the work displayed at the conference.

One poster, for example, describes a "virtual farm" created to better understand the many factors that can lead to foodborne illnesses involving produce. The mathematics-based computer model simulates the entire growth cycle, harvesting and packaging of leafy greens.

The model can predict which of many factors in various global environments are most likely to lead to contamination, and it provides information about how to offset those risks.

Other FDA scientists created DNA chips that, like computer chips, can store millions of pieces of data on a tiny solid surface. These chips, also called DNA microarrays, contain the DNA of every strain of five disease-causing bacteria. These pathogens, such as E. coli and Salmonella, cause thousands of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year.

The information on the chips allows scientists to define how toxic each strain of an organism is. Data on the chips is also being used by FDA scientists to monitor whether different kinds of bacteria are becoming resistant to certain antibiotics. Moreover, the chips can differentiate among the many strains of a particular pathogen and thus can help scientists rapidly identify the exact cause of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses.

Among the work featured at the conference:

  • Consumers sometimes buy what they think is a desirable, high-cost fish, but instead are handed a less desirable, cheaper species—an economic issue and a potential health risk. FDA scientists, working with the Smithsonian Institution, are in the midst of identifying the thousands of species of commercially harvested fish through DNA testing. About 400 species have been catalogued, and another 1,000 fish, bought in markets in the Philippines by Smithsonian scientists, are in FDA freezers awaiting DNA tests by one of three FDA scientists working on the project. Currently, agency investigators are sampling fish at wholesale outlets. Already, the technology has been used in FDA regulatory actions against firms that misbranded fish.
  • Veterinary stem cell therapy is an emerging area of research and may offer potential therapeutic benefits for animals. FDA scientists are making significant progress in research that will aide in FDA's evaluation of veterinary stem cell therapies being developed by industry.
  • Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria implicated in many foodborne illnesses, has a very clever means of perpetuating itself. It can create a filmy substance called a biofilm that allows it to cling to certain surfaces and to resist sanitizers. FDA scientists seeking to understand the biofilm and thus find means to remove it from food processing plants have combined two techniques: whole genome sequencing, a lab process that determines the complete DNA of an organism's chromosomes, and bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field for analyzing biological data.

Most of the featured research was conducted collaboratively among scientists in FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Office of Regulatory Affairs. It demonstrates FDA's commitment to answering difficult questions that few others are tackling, and the benefit that research offers to consumers.

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

August 29, 2013

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