Archived news articles - 2004

The Straits Times, 9 July 2004

Glowing 'cop' that detects poisons in a jiffy

Nanyang Poly and British firm to produce glowing micro-organism that will dim when it spots toxins

THIS detector will be able to pick out poisons, yet it is so small that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

The micro-organism will be genetically modified, so it can light up like a bulb. Its glow will diminish when it comes into contact with harmful microbes like cancer-causing toxins.

The mini cop is not yet a reality. A new laboratory at Nanyang Polytechnic hopes to bring it to life in two years' time.

The polytechnic is collaborating on the project with Crown Vision Systems, which specialises in researching, developing and licensing biotechnology applications in the food, health and environment sectors. It is the private arm of Britain-based bioscience company Crown Bio Systems.

The parent company's research director, Professor Ian Grant, said: 'Our goal is to develop a low-cost, speedy and sensitive diagnostic tool that is user-friendly and reduces the need for testing on animals.

'The institution's staff and students will be assisting our scientists.'

Said the resident scientist in charge of the project, Dr Li Xingmin: 'We're creating new organisms with unique characteristics that react to a wide variety of harmful toxins.'

He explained that food, pharmaceuticals and the environment are filled with contaminants, like pesticides, and toxins produced by fungi and bacteria which can cause cancers and diseases. 'So food and drug safety is increasingly important.'

At the moment, tests to determine the toxins in food and drugs involve using a method that separates the components in a liquid. But this method, said Dr Li, is expensive and time-consuming.

'Each time, only one sample can be tested. If you have 1,000 samples, it can take several months to get results.'

To produce one drug, thousands of chemicals have to be tested for toxicity. To test the various components of this drug on animals can run to $6 million.

Instead, Crown Vision Systems will modify the DNA of live cells to create cells that are sensitive to toxins. The scientists plan to introduce genes that respond rapidly to toxic substances, so the cells can produce results in hours rather than days, and can be used on a large quantity of products at a low cost.

Seed money of more than US$1 million (S$1.7 million) for the project has been provided by Britain's BAE Systems, which develops defence and aerospace systems. It and the Economic Development Board here brought together the polytechnic and Crown.

The running costs of the laboratory are being borne by Crown Vision Systems.

Singapore Press Holdings Limited The Straits Times (Singapore).Copyright 2004