Cutting edge dissertation project on Toxoplasmosis

Fiona Newberry (BSc Biology student) has completed a piece of applied and cutting-edge work for her dissertation project with the Toxoplasma Reference Unit, Public Health Wales.

"Toxoplasma gondii is a prevalent zoonotic pathogen, which infects 30-40% of the human population. The main route of infection is by ingestion of the parasite from environmental sources or as a foodborne infection. The prevention of infection is a key goal in reducing the overall burden of disease to any given population. The contribution of each of the environmental and foodborne routes of infection is critical in determining what advice should be given in order to determine the route of infection. It is estimated that the consumption of undercooked meat causes acute toxoplasmosis in 30-60% of pregnant women. Small outbreaks of foodborne toxoplasmosis in France, Korea, USA, French Guinea and New Zealand have been associated with the ingestion of undercooked or raw meat containing tissue cysts. A key aim of the study was to develop and assess the utility of a diagnostic test based on molecular detection of Toxoplasma gondii in meat entering the human food chain. The development of this assay could significantly alter the current testing methods and influence food safety and public health. 

In my dissertation a Real-Time PCR assay was generated which was capable of identifying Toxoplasma gondii tissue cysts in meat and quantifying the organism. I was working with Dr. Edward Guy from the Toxoplasma Reference Unit, Public Health Wales and Dr. Forman to develop this assay. The current methods of detection in meat are inadequate for large scale testing and susceptible to PCR inhibitors such as preservatives found in meat. 

This method serves to establish a platform for further research and can be utilized by a variety of areas such as medicine, public health and food safety. However, several concerns would need to be addressed before this assay can be used in large-scale studies. Further research would be needed in robust DNA extraction techniques, new target sequences and the utilization in pre-harvest. Once improved, it can be applied to testing meat pre- and post- harvest, which could drastically alter consumer knowledge, farm management and food safety standards."