NRC and partners set new standards for biotoxin analysis

March 01, 2012— Ottawa, Ontario

For the past quarter century, the National Research Council (NRC) has played an essential role in protecting consumers from algal biotoxins in shellfish and drinking water by identifying new toxic agents, developing analytical methods and producing certified reference materials (CRMs).

NRC accomplished this by working closely with various partners, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which now uses many of the new technologies and CRMs in their routine monitoring programs. 

In the process, NRC pioneered the development of advanced analytical methods for biotoxins based on a combination of two instruments — liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC-MS) — while creating a library of biotoxin data. Now, in partnership with Canadian instrument maker, AB SCIEX, the analytical methods, CRMs and reference data are being converted into a commercial, computerized biotoxin analysis system. 

Krista Thomas

NRC technician Krista Thomas prepares a sample for biotoxin analysis using an AB SCIEX instrument.

In 1987, NRC entered the biotoxins field by identifying the cause of an outbreak of amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), during which contaminated mussels killed three people and made hundreds of Canadians ill — some with permanent memory loss. Dr. Michael Quilliam, leader of NRC’s Biotoxins and Certified Reference Materials Program (CRMP) in Halifax, says the NRC team worked around the clock for four days to identify a new algae-borne biotoxin called domoic acid. Then, within days, his group established a rapid test for the biotoxin, which was quickly transferred to shellfish monitoring laboratories. This test and the CRMs that NRC has produced have successfully prevented a recurrence of ASP in humans, anywhere in the world. 

Seeing a need to improve the safety net that protects public health, as well as the economy of the shellfish industry, the CRMP team began co-operating with the CFIA lab in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and other laboratories worldwide, to develop proactive methods for the detection and identification of biotoxins that can sicken or kill people. Over the years, the research partners have identified many shellfish biotoxins, and produced numerous validated tests and CRMs. 

International standards

“By 2011, we had produced a suite of calibration standards and reference materials that allow all laboratories worldwide to get accurate results with methods such as LC-MS,” says Dr. Quilliam. “This is particularly important in international trade of seafood products.” 

The CRMP group now distributes 36 CRMs to more than 40 countries. These materials are essential to analytical laboratories because all measurement systems must be carefully calibrated before each test run. Lab technicians use the NRC CRMs — small samples with a known type and concentration of biotoxin — to set up analytical equipment before routine testing of shellfish for biotoxins.  

Why monitor shellfish biotoxins?

Canadian fisheries, like fisheries worldwide, continually test shellfish for biotoxins to keep them safe for domestic consumption and export sales, which form a significant market for this country.

Advance testing of exports can also save shipping costs and company reputations from a product that may later be rejected by recipient countries, which run their own acceptance tests.

Finally, monitoring aquaculture products while they’re still in the water at shellfish farms allows regulators to prevent a product from being harvested when it becomes contaminated. Regulators can then give an “all-clear” for harvest only when a product is clean and safe to eat again. This way, aquaculture operations do not lose any product and no one gets sick.

Dr. Quilliam is particularly proud of the LC-MS biotoxin analysis system that NRC has been helping AB SCIEX to develop over the last year. The technology is a “turnkey system” that controls instrument variables and reduces potential errors. Its plug-in software also provides step-by-step directions for sample preparation, and is bundled with a kit packing all the supplies a technician needs to calibrate and run an analysis accurately. 

Made-in-Canada technology 

“This technology was developed here in Canada on Canadian equipment,” Dr. Quilliam stresses. “The hardware is very powerful — but as with many consumer electronic devices now, it’s the apps that sell it. AB SCIEX realized that people aren’t just interested in buying a piece of hardware — they’re interested in solving a problem. The computer takes care of everything, allowing laboratory personnel to set up quickly for analyzing shellfish samples.” 

“Having a sophisticated piece of hardware, plus a computer system that controls the entire analysis, is a great way for the company to sell instruments,” he adds. 

Until recently, scientists using earlier-generation analysis equipment have had to work from science journal articles to develop their own test methods and reference samples. Both tasks are complex and specialized, so an integrated, automated turnkey system that covers these issues overcomes a problem in parts of the world where the specific expertise in LC-MS may be scarce. 

LC-MS analysis, which is already an accepted test for shellfish biotoxins in New Zealand and Canada, got a boost last year after its acceptance by the European Union as the official reference method. Now member nations can move away from an older test protocol that required the sacrifice of large numbers of laboratory mice. This would not have happened without NRC’s pioneering efforts in algal biotoxin measurement science and CRMs.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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