Researchers at the University of Strathclyde collaborated with industrial partner Adgen to develop monoclonal antibodies that bind uniquely to the patulin in infected fruit, such as apples, pears and grapes.
Patulin is a mycotoxin produced by certain species of Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Byssochylamys moulds that may grow on a variety of foods including fruit, grains and cheese.
A natural contaminant, patulin appears to occur mainly in apples and apple products. According to the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), it has been linked to a range of adverse effects in experiments on animals - it is a mutagen, immunotoxic and causes effects in the developing foetus.
Although there is no evidence of any adverse effects in humans attributable to ingestion of this toxin, expert advice recommends that the level of patulin in foodstuffs is kept as low as possible.
"The detection and estimation of the chemical has frustrated the food industry for years", say the researchers, who claim their findings will act as a spring board for the development of a simple test for the market based on the antibody: a test that will ensure the quick identification of toxin-contaminated fruit products.
"There has been a guideline limit for patulin in the UK for a number of years but this research will mean that the risk will be reduced to the absolute minimum in the future," commented Professor William Stimson at the University of Strathclyde.
In 2002 the FSA pulled an apple juice product from the shelves after detecting high levels of patulin (i.e. 78.8 micrograms per kilogram) in the drink supplied by James White Drinks. The level of patulin exceeded the UK advisory limit of 50ug/kg (set by the Food Advisory Committee).
Full findings of the Strathclyde study are published in the April 2005 issue of Business, the quarterly magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council that funded the patulin research.