What's Poisoning Your Food?

by francine Hardaway on April 22, 2007

One of the cool things about working with entrepreneurs is learning from them. Yesterday at lunch with Michelle Hanna, CEO of Ribomed I learned that my food is no longer safe, and that Michelle is going to do something about it if she can get the funding.

Funding is always a problem for young companies, but when you are in biotech in Arizona, it’s especially difficult. Because she’s a superstar researcher, Michelle Hanna has received millions in government grants, but they have had their downside. Every time the government initiatives shift, the money shifts with them, and the grants go away. It makes it almost impossible to develop a product roadmap.

However, Ribomed has gotten around this difficulty by developing a platform, rather than a single product. Michelle founded Ribomed because she was interested in developing molecular tests for early cancer detection. When she started talking about this, no one else thought about it. Now, it’s the hottest area for cancer research.

For the past seven years, she has been successfully developing a testing platform that has turned out also to be useful for many other kinds of tests, because unlike most of the molecular tests in use now, it is resistant to both blood and dirt

In 2001, after 9/11, the federal government — which has funded most of her research and development up to now –asked her to take a detour from cancer detection into bioterrorism agent detection. Sure enough, her platform worked in this arena as well. But now, the government has decided that a bioterrorist event is unlikely, and has shut down the program that gave her the most funding.

At the same time, Michelle has been growing more interested in what seems to have happened to our food supply over the past six months. She listed some of the more important incidents to me: the current beef recall, the poisoned pet food, the FDA warning about olives, and the outbreak of Norovirus on cruise ships.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew the food on your cruise ship had been tested before you boarded the ship? Why pay good money to be poisoned in a Carribbean port? Unfortunately, many passengers do.

In 2007 alone, there have been salmonella outbreaks in cheese, peanut butter, equipment, and milk. If you go back a couple of years, botulism has been found in carrot juice, E.coli has been found in spinach and lettuce, and salmonella has been found again in tomatoes, orange juice, tomatoes, almonds and alfalfa sprouts. In 2002, while Michelle Hanna was combatting potential bioterrorism agents, thirteen people died from Listeria contamination in chicken.

Her research has led her to the conclusion that while certain foods like pork and beef may already be inspected and regulated, and are under scrutiny, produce has been one of the biggest sources of food-borne illness, and continues to go unregulated. And even foods that are tested can yield only certain contaminents detectable with existing tests.

Dr Hanna told me there are easy tests for bacteria like salmonella, which is the largest cause of disease found in poultry or dairy, because you can grow bacteria in a Petri dish. (remember your high school science?) But it’s not so easy to test for a virus, like Norovirus, which is a big source of contamination in produce. For a virus, you need a molecular test. And if you are going to test beef, poultry, or produce, you need a test that’s resistant to blood and dirt.

Voila! Such a test platform already exists, and all Michelle needs to do is manufacture it. I know what you’re going to tell me. Women belong in the kitchen. Only when they can save our food supply :-)

So Michelle is on the way to altering her product roadmap, which was going to bring her back to cancer detection, in order to fill what she sees as an unmet “market need” — developing the tests that, if used, can make our food supply safe once again.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

max April 25, 2007 at 6:03 pm

Great review and post. I always wondered what was going on in that mysterious “Ribomed” building in downtown phx. Good luck Michelle!

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