2009 Winner: Innovation in Agricultural Sciences
Research Yields Breakthrough Discovery For Food Safety
Every year an estimated 11- to 13 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illnesses, like the listeria outbreak of 2008 in Canada that led to 22 deaths. The landmark discovery of Drs. Lynn McMullen and Michael Stiles reduces the risk of foodborne illness.
“We can prevent Listeria from growing on ready-to-eat foods like hot dogs,” states Dr. McMullen. It sounds simple enough, but their pioneering platform technology is the result of decades-long research.
The technology called micocin®, uses “friendly” naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria for preserving food and preventing foodborne illness. A second invention is Procin®, a genetically modified bacteria proven to reduce the incidence of scours in piglets. This can be expanded to help prevent other animal diseases with the potential to develop targeted probiotics to improve human health.
To commercialize and market micocin and Procin, in 1998 Drs. McMullen and Stiles created CanBiocin Inc., a spin-off company from the University of Alberta. Dr. Stiles, professor emeritus at the university, is CEO and leads the research team; Dr. McMullen, professor in the university’s Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science faculty, is the chief scientific officer of the company.
Micocin is being marketed to companies that process and market meat products in the United States, which regulated the product four years ago, and in Central- and South America.
“It’s tremendously satisfying to see our science lead to commercialization and application in the real world,” says Dr. McMullen. “We have a number of companies waiting to use it once the Canadian government approval goes through later this year.”
Their partner in the endeavour is Griffiths Laboratories. Ltd. a global supplier of food ingredients to the meat industry. Dr. McMullen credits the successful international marketing achievements to Griffith Labs. Commercialization represents significant economic potential for Alberta’s agri-industry and attracts leading researchers in food safety and biotechnology to the province.
Dr. McMullen’s accomplishments are not limited to her research. She is also the co-founder of Agri-Food Discovery Place, overseeing the Meat Safety and Processing Research Unit. The unit has features that allow researchers to work safely with pathogens like Listeria, and mimic conditions in a commercial meat processing plant. “It’s a dream come true,” Dr. McMullen says. “What I do in a test tube does not translate to the real world. This unit allows me to do my research in real life situation. It’s changed the research I am able to do and offers endless possibilities.”
Dr. McMullen and Dr. Stiles are highly respected educators. Dr. McMullen refers to Dr. Stiles as her mentor and says they share a love of teaching.
“It’s gratifying to teach the next generation of scientists, industry leaders and educators” she says. “It’s definitely a big part of what keeps us motivated.”