The latest tools, like whole genome sequencing, are allowing food outbreaks to be identified and stopped more quickly.

(Photo by Orlova Maria on Unsplash)

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.

Shaun Raviv
Shaun Raviv is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. You can read his work at
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A woman prepares to swallow a digital pill that can track whether she has taken her medication.

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Dr. Sara Browne, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is a specialist in infectious diseases and, less formally, "a global health person." She often travels to southern Africa to meet with colleagues working on the twin epidemics of HIV and tuberculosis.

"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis."

Lately she has asked them to name the most pressing things she can help with as a researcher based in a wealthier country. "Over and over and over again," she says, "the only thing they wanted to know is whether their patients are taking the drugs."

Tuberculosis is one of world's deadliest diseases; every year there are 10 million new infections and more than a million deaths. When a patient with tuberculosis is prescribed medicine to combat the disease, adherence to the regimen is important not just for the individual's health, but also for the health of the community. Poor adherence can lead to lengthier and more costly treatment and, perhaps more importantly, to drug-resistant strains of the disease -- an increasing global threat.

Browne is testing a new method to help healthcare workers track their patients' adherence with greater precision—close to exact precision even. They're called digital pills, and they involve a patient swallowing medicine as they normally would, only the capsule contains a sensor that—when it contacts stomach acid—transmits a signal to a small device worn on or near the body. That device in turn sends a signal to the patient's phone or tablet and into a cloud-based database. The fact that the pill has been swallowed has therefore been recorded almost in real time, and notice is available to whoever has access to the database.

"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis," Browne says. TB is much more prevalent in poorer regions of the world—in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example—than in richer places like the U.S., where Browne's studies thus far have taken place. But when someone is diagnosed in the U.S., because of the risk to others if it spreads, they will likely have to deal with "directly observed therapy" to ensure that they take their medicines correctly.

DOT, as it's called, requires the patient to meet with a healthcare worker several days a week, or every day, so that the medicine intake can be observed in person -- an expensive and time-consuming process. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says (emphasis theirs), "DOT should be used for ALL patients with TB disease, including children and adolescents. There is no way to accurately predict whether a patient will adhere to treatment without this assistance."

Digital pills can help with both the cost and time involved, and potentially improve adherence in places where DOT is impossibly expensive. With the sensors, you can monitor a patient's adherence without a healthcare worker physically being in the room. Patients can live their normal lives and if they miss a pill, they can receive a reminder by text or a phone call from the clinic or hospital. "They can get on with their lives," said Browne. "They don't need the healthcare system to interrupt them."

A 56-year-old patient who participated in one of Browne's studies when he was undergoing TB treatment says that before he started taking the digital pills, he would go to the clinic at least once every day, except weekends. Once he switched to digital pills, he could go to work and spend time with his wife and children instead of fighting traffic every day to get to the clinic. He just had to wear a small patch on his abdomen, which would send the signal to a tablet provided by Browne's team. When he returned from work, he could see the results—that he'd taken the pill—in a database accessed via the tablet. (He could also see his heart rate and respiratory rate.) "I could do my daily activities without interference," he said.

Dr. Peter Chai, a medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, is studying digital pills in a slightly different context, to help fight the country's opioid overdose crisis. Doctors like Chai prescribe pain medicine, he says, but then immediately put the onus on the patient to decide when to take it. This lack of guidance can lead to abuse and addiction. Patients are often told to take the meds "as needed." Chai and his colleagues wondered, "What does that mean to patients? And are people taking more than they actually need? Because pain is such a subjective experience."

The patients "liked the fact that somebody was watching them."

They wanted to see what "take as needed" actually led to, so they designed a study with patients who had broken a bone and come to the hospital's emergency department to get it fixed. Those who were prescribed oxycodone—a pharmaceutical opioid for pain relief—got enough digital pills to last one week. They were supposed to take the pills as needed, or as many as three pills per day. When the pills were ingested, the sensor sent a signal to a card worn on a lanyard around the neck.

Chai and his colleagues were able to see exactly when the patients took the pills and how many, and to detect patterns of ingestion more precisely than ever before. They talked to the patients after the seven days were up, and Chai said most were happy to be taking digital pills. The patients saw it as a layer of protection from afar. "They liked the fact that somebody was watching them," Chai said.

Both doctors, Browne and Chai, are in early stages of studies with patients taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, medicines that can protect people with a high-risk of contracting HIV, such as injectable drug users. Without good adherence, patients leave themselves open to getting the virus. If a patient is supposed to take a pill at 2 p.m. but the digital pill sensor isn't triggered, the healthcare provider can have an automatic message sent as a reminder. Or a reminder to one of the patient's friends or loved ones.

"Like Swallowing Your Phone"?

Deven Desai, an associate professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech, says that digital pills sound like a great idea for helping with patient adherence, a big issue that self-reporting doesn't fully solve. He likes the idea of a physician you trust having better information about whether you're taking your medication on time. "On the surface that's just cool," he says. "That's a good thing." But Desai, who formerly worked as academic research counsel at Google, said that some of the same questions that have come up in recent years with social media and the Internet in general also apply to digital pills.

"Think of it like your phone, but you swallowed it," he says. "At first it could be great, simple, very much about the user—in this case, the patient—and the data is going between you and your doctor and the medical people it ought to be going to. Wonderful. But over time, phones change. They become 'smarter.'" And when phones and other technologies become smarter, he says, the companies behind them tend to expand the type of data they collect, because they can. Desai says it will be crucial that prescribers be completely transparent about who is getting the patients' data and for what purpose.

"We're putting stuff in our body in good faith with our medical providers, and what if it turned out later that all of a sudden someone was data mining or putting in location trackers and we never knew about that?" Desai asks. "What science has to realize is if they don't start thinking about this, what could be a wonderful technology will get killed."

Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, agrees with Desai that digital pills have great promise, and also that there are clear reasons to be concerned about their use. Turner compared the pills to credit cards and social media, in that the data from them can potentially be stolen or leaked. One question he would want answered before the pills were normalized: "What kind of protective measures are in place to make sure that personal information isn't spilling out and being acquired by others or used by others in unexpected and unwanted ways?"

If digital pills catch on, some experts worry that they may one day not be a voluntary technology.

Turner also wonders who will have access to the pills themselves. Only those who can afford both the medicine plus the smartphones that are currently required for their use? Or will people from all economic classes have access? If digital pills catch on, he also worries they may one day not be a voluntary technology.

"When it comes to digital pills, it's not something that's really being foisted on individuals. It's more something that people can be informed of and can choose to take or not to take," he says. "But down the road, I can imagine a scenario where we move away from purely voluntary agreements to it becoming more of an expectation."

He says it's easy to picture a scenario in which insurance companies demand that patient medicinal intake data be tracked and collected or else. Refuse to have your adherence tracked and you risk higher rates or even overall coverage. Maybe patients who don't take the digital pills suffer dire consequences financially or medically. "Maybe it becomes beneficial as much to health insurers and payers as it is to individual patients," Turner says.

In November 2017, the FDA approved the first-ever digital pill that includes a sensor, a drug called Abilify MyCite, made by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. The drug, which is yet to be released, is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. With a built-in sensor developed by Proteus Digital Health, patients can give their doctors permission to see when exactly they are taking, or not taking, their meds. For patients with mental illness, the ability to help them stick to their prescribed regime can be life-saving.

But Turner wonders if Abilify is the best drug to be a forerunner for digital pills. Some people with schizophrenia might be suffering from paranoia, and perhaps giving them a pill developed by a large corporation that sends data from their body to be tracked by other people might not be the best idea. It could in fact exacerbate their sense of paranoia.

The Bottom Line: Protect the Data

We all have relatives who have pillboxes with separate compartments for each day of the week, or who carry pillboxes that beep when it's time to take the meds. But that's not always good enough for people with dementia, mental illness, drug addiction, or other life situations that make it difficult to remember to take their pills. Digital pills can play an important role in helping these people.

"The absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."

The one time the patient from Browne's study forgot to take his pills, he got a beeping reminder from his tablet that he'd missed a dose. "Taking a medication on a daily basis, sometimes we just forget, right?" he admits. "With our very accelerated lives nowadays, it helps us to remember that we have to take the medications. So patients are able to be on top of their own treatment."

Browne is convinced that digital pills can help people in developing countries with high rates of TB and HIV, though like Turner and Desai she cautions that patients' data must be protected. "I think it can be a tremendous technology for patient empowerment and I also think if properly used it can help the medical system to support patients that need it," she said. "But the absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."

Shaun Raviv
Shaun Raviv is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. You can read his work at