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April 06, 2009— Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

When Charlottetown-based Stirling Products North America Inc. (STI-NA) developed an extraction process for a yeast-based complex sugar product called beta glucan as a natural livestock feed supplement, the company faced a challenge. For its industrial process to extract beta glucan — trade named ProValeTM — Stirling Products had to find ways to test the purity of batches and standardize effective doses to meet Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) standards.

STI-NA Vice-President of Technical Services, Shane Patelakis, says the product boosts animal immune systems, rather like low-dose antibiotics that farmers use to reduce herd diseases. But beta glucan can be certified organic, leaves no antibiotic residues, and costs about the same.

The problem: several North American companies make beta glucans of many qualities, but few market it for animals. Stirling Products had to prove it met CFIA standards for purity and quality. But Patelakis found no industry-standard test, and existing tests met neither CFIA's nor STI-NA's needs.

Shane Patelakis inspects a pump at Stirling Products North America Inc.'s pilot plant in Prince Edward Island

Shane Patelakis inspects a pump at Stirling Products North America Inc.'s pilot plant in Prince Edward Island.

Accurate, consistent quality control was crucial for Stirling Products, says Patelakis. Batch purity varied naturally and the company needed to sell standard doses for different types of animals — ranging from 40 grams per metric tonne of feed for poultry to 200 grams for cattle. 

Patelakis' background as a food scientist had exposed him to the NRC Institute for Nutrisciences and Health (NRC-INH) in Charlottetown, and so he turned there for help.

"We wanted to differentiate our company, and we needed the credibility of an independent national organization to back that up," says Patelakis. "We went directly to NRC. It helped us better understand our process and our product."

Through Dr. Bob Chapman, the group leader at NRC-INH, and his colleague, Dr. Jim Johnson, Stirling Products gained access to research and expertise that helped it identify a test that should measure up to CFIA standards.

The team combed the science literature and found an enzyme-based test. Unfortunately, it was complex, tedious and overly challenging for technicians, who had to handle numerous steps over many hours — and the accuracy of the final measurement involved luck as well as skill. "That presented a problem for us," says Dr. Chapman. "We started thinking: 'there must be a better way'." 

He found the answer more or less down the hall. NRC-INH is part of a unique partnership in which researchers from NRC, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of Prince Edward Island, and industry share space, information and equipment in their building on the university's campus. That equipment includes a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument.

Working with Dr. Chris Kirby, the machine's resident expert, the team found a way to use NMR to accurately test the particular sugars they wanted. With the wrinkles ironed out, the new test takes only a quarter of the time of the original test and satisfied Stirling Products' needs. They are now working with CFIA to ensure it meets their needs as well.

As a bonus, it could be widened to test for other yeast-based sugars. "That will open up the value chain for other uses," Dr. Chapman notes, adding that breweries could be interested in adapting the test to aid making better beer.

It's a leap forward that the NRC-INH team is now writing about in a scientific paper. This is one of many instances, says Dr. Chapman, in which NRC-INH has developed new techniques for testing Canadian bioscience products.

"Instead of working technicians, the test works the technology," he says. "There's only one real technician step, and it's easy to teach."

Patelakis says Stirling Product's experience with NRC-INH may be unique to Canada. "It's nice that we have the opportunity for partnership," he says. "This institute is hands-on. They really want to work with industry, they understand the business side, and they operate at the same pace as business people."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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