06/26/2017 09:17 EDT | Updated 06/26/2017 09:18 EDT

Canada Takes The Lead In Dealing With Salmonella

A large team of researchers have developed a new system called SalFoS, which they believe may be able to help prevent foodborne outbreaks in the future.

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On Saturday, thirty-five million people will celebrate a milestone for this nation. Canada will be 150 years old. It certainly will be a party.

While the majority of Canadians will gather to mark the chronological age of our country, there are many other reasons to mark this occasion. One in particular is the continuing standing as a leader in public health. More specifically, Canada has always been at the forefront in the prevention and control of infectious diseases.

Perhaps the most health-relevant global achievement was the initiation of the World Health Organization, an effort that was led by a Canadian, Dr. Brock Chisholm. His vision of reducing the global burden of disease led to this international collaboration involving hundreds of countries. The aim to keep the public safe continues to this day and the organization plays an important role in almost every international infectious disease outbreak.

Closer to home, Canada has revealed itself to be a leader in improving health. Back in 1902, the country set up the first free tuberculosis treatment institution. Known as the Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumption, it became the only centre to help those affected by this disease free of charge. While times have changed significantly over the decades, the concept of free TB treatment centres continues to be one providing by Canada for those who suffer from this illness.

Perhaps the most recent international milestone happened just a few years ago. A team of researchers in Winnipeg developed a vaccine against one of the most dangerous viruses, Ebola. The trials were not just successful, they were 100% effective. In a few years, the threat of this deadly disease may be eradicated completely thanks to the work of these Canadian specialists.

As we approach July 1st, Canadians have done it again, this time in the realm of food safety. A large team of researchers have developed a new system called SalFoS, which they believe may be able to help prevent foodborne outbreaks in the future. But unlike previous discoveries, this one is perfect for 2017 as it relies on the most common aspect of our modern-day lives: data.

The official name of SalFoS is the "Salmonella Foodborne Syst-OMICS database." As the name implies, the tool is designed to better understand this pathogen in the food chain. This is a worthwhile effort considering some 87,500 Canadians suffer from this preventable illness each year. The range of symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, intestinal bleeding, and possibly a life or death crisis.

The tool utilizes a common practice in any life science laboratory called genomic sequencing. Each cell has a collection of genetic material, which at the molecular level appears to be a string of molecules. By analyzing the individual members of that string, a genomic sequence can be attained. This visual readout can be saved in a database for future reference. The initial goal of SalFoS is to identify a minimum of 4,500 Salmonella genomic sequences in the hopes of developing a virtual catalogue.

But this is only the first step. Once the genetic information has been stored, it will be analyzed for several components involved in infection. They include proteins known to worsen symptoms, known as virulence factors, antibiotic resistance genes, and mobile elements, which as one can infer, are pieces of the genome capable of moving from one cell to another.

Once this information has been put into place, the database will develop a historical analysis of the different collected strains. The technique will go deep into those genomic sequences in the hopes of identifying small changes -- known as polymorphisms -- which make each strain unique. These alterations can then be compared to develop an evolutionary tree much like the Tree of Life. This "Tree of Salmonella" can offer clues as to how various strains spread in the environment and end up in our food supply.

Although SalFoS is not yet complete, the results to date are online and available for anyone to examine. The hope is to have both Canadian and international researchers use this tool to better understand the nature of Salmonella spread and identify means to stop the contamination of our food supply. This could come in the identification of hotspots where the pathogen is more likely to be found in animals, the unmasking of at-risk communities, and possibly the discovery of trade routes more likely to spread the bacteria. Regardless of the intent, the SalFoS effect will be safer food for us and less cost burden on those trying to prevent the spread of the pathogen.

There is little doubt Canada is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to public health. But momentous efforts such as the Ebola vaccine and now SalFoS reveal we are not resting on our laurels. Each and every day, thousands of Canadian scientists are working hard to find the next big discovery.

As we head towards Canada Day, we should offer researchers more than just praise. We should strive to keep them in our minds and ensure moving forward their work has the entire country's support both spiritually and yes, financially. If all of us play our part, we will be certain to keep our place as leaders in public health.

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