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Detecting marine biotoxins – CFIA and university students working to make a difference

October 2019

A group of undergraduate students from the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Left to right: Carolyn Bateman, CFIA Director of the Burnaby Laboratory, Ho Jung (Michael) Yoon, Tylo James Roberts, Ariel Qi, Samuel Hahn, Simon Cowell, CFIA Section Head of the Burnaby Laboratory, Morris Huang and Alex Gaudi.

When a group of undergraduate students from the University of British Columbia (UBC) came up with the idea to develop and implement a biosensor to detect saxitoxin – a toxin responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in humans – they began by researching market needs.

It wasn't long before they came across the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) Marine Biotoxin Detection Devices for Shellfish Innovative Solutions Canada (ISC) challenge, which confirmed they were on to something.

In December 2018, CFIA issued a challenge to small businesses in Canada to develop an innovative device to detect marine biotoxins in Canadian waters. This challenge was part of the ISC program designed to stimulate growth in Canadian small businesses while also providing federal departments and agencies with opportunities to develop new capabilities to meet their mandate or research and development needs.

"When we saw CFIA's challenge, it only reinforced the need for a new tool in the market, one that could help safeguard Canada's shellfish commodity," says UBC student, Ariel Qi.

The students reached out to CFIA to gather more information on testing and detection protocols. They took a tour of CFIA's Burnaby Laboratory where Agency scientists provided them with a wealth of information to further their project. "We were thrilled the students connected with us. The more brains we have working on this biotoxin issue, the better," says Carolyn Bateman, Director of CFIA's Burnaby Laboratory.

While ineligible for the ISC challenge program, the UBC undergraduate students are working hard to finalize their project which will be presented at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) in October 2019. The iGEM is a competition that invites innovative undergraduate students to present proposals that push the boundaries of biotechnology research.

"It's good to know the Agency's challenge has received engagement by academia as well as small businesses in Canada," says Bateman.

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