With the pandemic at the forefront of everyone's minds, many people have wondered if food could be a source of coronavirus transmission. Luckily, that "seems unlikely," according to the CDC, but foodborne illnesses do still sicken a whopping 48 million people per year.
Whole genome sequencing is like "going from an eight-bit image—maybe like what you would see in Minecraft—to a high definition image."
In normal times, when there isn't a historic global health crisis infecting millions and affecting the lives of billions, foodborne outbreaks are real and frightening, potentially deadly, and can cause widespread fear of particular foods. Think of Romaine lettuce spreading E. coli last year— an outbreak that infected more than 500 people and killed eight—or peanut butter spreading salmonella in 2008, which infected 167 people.
The technologies available to detect and prevent the next foodborne disease outbreak have improved greatly over the past 30-plus years, particularly during the past decade, and better, more nimble technologies are being developed, according to experts in government, academia, and private industry. The key to advancing detection of harmful foodborne pathogens, they say, is increasing speed and portability of detection, and the precision of that detection.
Getting to Rapid Results
Researchers at Purdue University have recently developed a lateral flow assay that, with the help of a laser, can detect toxins and pathogenic E. coli. Lateral flow assays are cheap and easy to use; a good example is a home pregnancy test. You place a liquid or liquefied sample on a piece of paper designed to detect a single substance and soon after you get the results in the form of a colored line: yes or no.
"They're a great portable tool for us for food contaminant detection," says Carmen Gondhalekar, a fifth-year biomedical engineering graduate student at Purdue. "But one of the areas where paper-based lateral flow assays could use improvement is in multiplexing capability and their sensitivity."
J. Paul Robinson, a professor in Purdue's Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Engineering, and Gondhalekar's advisor, agrees. "One of the fundamental problems that we have in detection is that it is hard to identify pathogens in complex samples," he says.
When it comes to foodborne disease outbreaks, you don't always know what substance you're looking for, so an assay made to detect only a single substance isn't always effective. The goal of the project at Purdue is to make assays that can detect multiple substances at once.
These assays would be more complex than a pregnancy test. As detailed in Gondhalekar's recent paper, a laser pulse helps create a spectral signal from the sample on the assay paper, and the spectral signal is then used to determine if any unique wavelengths associated with one of several toxins or pathogens are present in the sample. Though the handheld technology has yet to be built, the idea is that the results would be given on the spot. So someone in the field trying to track the source of a Salmonella infection could, for instance, put a suspected lettuce sample on the assay and see if it has the pathogen on it.
"What our technology is designed to do is to give you a rapid assessment of the sample," says Robinson. "The goal here is speed."
Seeing the Pathogen in "High-Def"
"One in six Americans will get a foodborne illness every year," according to Dr. Heather Carleton, a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch. But not every foodborne outbreak makes the news. In 2017 alone, the CDC monitored between 18 and 37 foodborne poison clusters per week and investigated 200 multi-state clusters. Hardboiled eggs, ground beef, chopped salad kits, raw oysters, frozen tuna, and pre-cut melon are just a taste of the foods that were investigated last year for different strains of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.
At the heart of the CDC investigations is PulseNet, a national network of laboratories that uses DNA fingerprinting to detect outbreaks at local and regional levels. This is how it works: When a patient gets sick—with symptoms like vomiting and fever, for instance—they will go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Since we're talking about foodborne illnesses, a clinician will likely take a stool sample from the patient and send it off to a laboratory to see if there is a foodborne pathogen, like salmonella, E. Coli, or another one. If it does contain a potentially harmful pathogen, then a bacterial isolate of that identified sample is sent to a regional public health lab so that whole genome sequencing can be performed.
Whole genome sequencing can differentiate "virtually all" strains of foodborne pathogens, no matter the species, according to the FDA.
Whole genome sequencing is a method for reading the entire genome of a bacterial isolate (or from any organism, for that matter). Instead of working with a couple dozen data points, now you're working with millions of base pairs. Carleton likes to describe it as "going from an eight-bit image—maybe like what you would see in Minecraft—to a high definition image," she says. "It's really an evolution of how we detect foodborne illnesses and identify outbreaks."
If the bacterial isolate matches another in the CDC's database, this means there could be a potential outbreak and an investigation may be started, with the goal of tracking the pathogen to its source.
Whole genome sequencing has been a relatively recent shift in foodborne disease detection. For more than 20 years, the standard technique for analyzing pathogens in foodborne disease outbreaks was pulsed-field gel electrophoresis. This method creates a DNA fingerprint for each sample in the form of a pattern of about 15-30 "bands," with each band representing a piece of DNA. Researchers like Carleton can use this fingerprint to see if two samples are from the same bacteria. The problem is that 15-30 bands are not enough to differentiate all isolates. Some isolates whose bands look very similar may actually come from different sources and some whose bands look different may be from the same source. But if you can see the entire DNA fingerprint, then you don't have that issue. That's where whole genome sequencing comes in.
Although the PulseNet team had piloted whole genome sequencing as early as 2013, it wasn't until July of last year that the transition to using whole genome sequencing for all pathogens was complete. Though whole genome sequencing requires far more computing power to generate, analyze, and compare those millions of data points, the payoff is huge.
Stopping Outbreaks Sooner
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acquired their first whole genome sequencers in 2008, according to Dr. Eric Brown, the Director of the Division of Microbiology in the FDA's Office of Regulatory Science. Since then, through their GenomeTrakr program, a network of more than 60 domestic and international labs, the FDA has sequenced and publicly shared more than 400,000 isolates. "The impact of what whole genome sequencing could do to resolve a foodborne outbreak event was no less impactful than when NASA turned on the Hubble Telescope for the first time," says Brown.
Whole genome sequencing has helped identify strains of Salmonella that prior methods were unable to differentiate. In fact, whole genome sequencing can differentiate "virtually all" strains of foodborne pathogens, no matter the species, according to the FDA. This means it takes fewer clinical cases—fewer sick people—to detect and end an outbreak.
And perhaps the largest benefit of whole genome sequencing is that these detailed sequences—the millions of base pairs—can imply geographic location. The genomic information of bacterial strains can be different depending on the area of the country, helping these public health agencies eventually track the source of outbreaks—a restaurant, a farm, a food-processing center.
Coming Soon: "Lab in a Backpack"
Now that whole genome sequencing has become the go-to technology of choice for analyzing foodborne pathogens, the next step is making the process nimbler and more portable. Putting "the lab in a backpack," as Brown says.
The CDC's Carleton agrees. "Right now, the sequencer we use is a fairly big box that weighs about 60 pounds," she says. "We can't take it into the field."
A company called Oxford Nanopore Technologies is developing handheld sequencers. Their devices are meant to "enable the sequencing of anything by anyone anywhere," according to Dan Turner, the VP of Applications at Oxford Nanopore.
"The sooner that we can see linkages…the sooner the FDA gets in action to mitigate the problem and put in some kind of preventative control."
"Right now, sequencing is very much something that is done by people in white coats in laboratories that are set up for that purpose," says Turner. Oxford Nanopore would like to create a new, democratized paradigm.
The FDA is currently testing these types of portable sequencers. "We're very excited about it. We've done some pilots, to be able to do that sequencing in the field. To actually do it at a pond, at a river, at a canal. To do it on site right there," says Brown. "This, of course, is huge because it means we can have real-time sequencing capability to stay in step with an actual laboratory investigation in the field."
"The timeliness of this information is critical," says Marc Allard, a senior biomedical research officer and Brown's colleague at the FDA. "The sooner that we can see linkages…the sooner the FDA gets in action to mitigate the problem and put in some kind of preventative control."
At the moment, the world is rightly focused on COVID-19. But as the danger of one virus subsides, it's only a matter of time before another pathogen strikes. Hopefully, with new and advancing technology like whole genome sequencing, we can stop the next deadly outbreak before it really gets going.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.