A new state-of-the-art device acquired by the state Veterinary Diagnostic Lab is helping to identify diseases in animals within hours instead of days — which means a quicker response to prevent a potential outbreak.
The Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization Time of Flight Spectrometer is now being used by the lab for regular disease surveillance of livestock, which is a critical way to prevent public health outbreaks, since the majority of infectious diseases in humans possess the ability to jump from animals to humans, according to lab Managing Director Robert Gibson.
While most examples of these animal-hopping diseases are viruses (think bird flu, swine flu), some high profile bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria can be caught early by the lab’s testing equipment, preventing potential foodborne illnesses.
The device is able to scan for bacterial and fungal organisms, but not viruses.
Gibson said they’ve used the equipment so far as part of their routine testing at dairy farms.
“Cows can get mastitis [inflammation of the udder] and it’s important to be able to identify the organisms that cause the infection … so they can treat the cow or get the cow out of the milking plant,” Gibson said.
Using the traditional method of identifying organisms, a lab worker had to first grow a microbial specimen, which takes about 18 hours, then spend the next several days mixing the sample with various compounds to see how it would react.
“You would be doing a battery of tests to see how that organism responds and based on those physiological responses you would use that to identify the organism, whether it be E. coli or salmonella, for example,” Gibson said. “In the old reactions, you’re looking for color changes. … You’re looking for visible reactions, which can sometimes also be subjective … and difficult to read.”
Now, the length of time it takes to identify a microorganism is just the 18 hours it takes to grow the sample.
Once it’s ready, a lab worker inserts the sample into the device, and it produces an immediate identification with a certainty score.
It does this by measuring the microscopic weight and movements of the proteins and comparing these to known characteristics in a microbiological database.
“That creates this profile. It’s kind of like a unique fingerprint,” Gibson said.
The new system is so efficient, Gibson said, that the lab can perform significantly more diagnostic tests each year now. Meanwhile, the cost of running the lab is about the same since the upfront cost and maintenance cost of the device balances out the savings in labor and other materials that are no longer needed.
Most of the $200,000 instrument was paid for by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experimentation Station. The lab also received a donation of $50,000 from a private donor.