Collaboration Could Mean Boon for LR Firm, NCTR

by Mark Carter  on Monday, Jul. 4, 2011 12:00 am  

NCTR researcher Dan Buzatu (right) extracts a measured portion of dye to mix with a bacteria sample with help from colleague Jon Wilkes.

Researchers with the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson and Little Rock biotech firm Litmus Rapid-B have developed a method of detecting E. coli and other bacteria in a matter of hours as opposed to days.

The commercialization of this technology is expected not only to have a major impact on the food processing industry, but could help ensure NCTR's future funding.

Potentially, it represents one of the most commercially viable technologies produced at NCTR, which for 40 years has sat mostly unnoticed, adjacent to the Pine Bluff Arsenal, in Jefferson County.

Founded in 1971, NCTR is the research arm of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Commercialization of the Rapid-B technology, local business leaders believe, could help ensure continued future funding for NCTR.

(Click here for a sidebar on high-paying jobs at NCTR.)

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has been a vocal supporter of NCTR, and he successfully lobbied for its $61 million inclusion in the fiscal 2011 budget.

Litmus Rapid-B is the result of collaborative work on bacteria and virus detection between NCTR and the parent company of Litmus Rapid-B, Litmus LLC.

Litmus LLC was founded in Little Rock by Mark Diggs in 2002, and LRB is led by former Fed Ex executive and Accelerate Arkansas member Ted Moskal. A federal Cooperative Research & Development Agreement (CRADA) partner, LRB shares technical expertise and intellectual property with NCTR and is authorized to commercialize technology developed there.

Under the Radar
LRB officials preferred not to reveal much information about the firm, other than to express confidence in future growth. But LRB's days of flying under the business radar in Arkansas may be coming to an end. The Center for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas recently announced a partnership with LRB to implement its faster method at food processing and distribution centers.

Steven Ricke, CFS director, said the faster detection method solves current food safety problems but also provides solutions for potential future issues.

The patent-pending Rapid-B technology improves on existing tech by targeting, marking and counting individual cells rather than counting colonies of cells. It does so using a modified flow cytometer, a device used to count and examine microscopic particles. A special dye applied to individual cells can tell scientists if a cell is dead or alive.

The results speak for themselves, reducing the turnaround time for detecting the presence of bacteria in food by roughly 350 percent - from two to four days to four and a half to six hours. Less complicated environmental tests can be knocked out in 15 to 30 minutes.

"If you have a perishable food product, the speed of this technology adds enormous value," said Jon Wilkes, who invented the technology with his NCTR colleague, Dan Buzatu. Together, they co-direct the Center of Excellence for Innovative Technologies at NCTR.

"We intended our research to be not just an incremental improvement, but a huge step forward," Buzatu said. "This is disruptive technology."

In addition to its use in the field of food safety, this new method can accurately diagnose infectious diseases and recognize agents used for bioterrorism. LRB is working with scientists at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to develop a 30-minute tuberculosis test as well.

"LRB is not a biopharmaceutical company with one drug treating one indication for one segment of the population, which can take up to 15 years to reach commercialization for each drug," said Brian Umberson, the firm's sales and marketing manager. "Rapid-B is not a 15 to 20 percent tweak of an existing technology like so many new products. Our technology can have major impacts on the food industry and clinical testing."

For example, the Rapid-B process eliminates the need for culture plates.

"Culture plates take two to four days," he said. "Food processors have to wait for results before releasing shipments, so they can lose one to four days of shelf life and exposure in the store. Each day a product sits in a holding area instead of the consumer buying the product is extremely expensive for perishables like raw meats and vegetables."

The Rapid-B process allows producers to perform an environmental pre-test on site.

"Currently, there's a 24- to 48-hour hold and release of production" while producers await test results, Umberson said. "Our product test reduces hold-and-release timelines to six hours or less. Consider the difference in volume of chicken that can be produced in six hours versus 24 or 48 hours. Then consider the logistics of putting all of it into a hold-and-release warehouse and tracking it as it's inspected."       



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