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Invention has nasty germs on the run

Quickly detects bacteria

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PINAWA -- Inventor David Prystupa's creation looks like a mini-house of mirrors but for that most unfunny of earthly matter: bacteria.

Put the bacterium in and one mirror makes it look ridiculously fat; another makes it look freakishly skinny -- and so on.

Not quite. What the invention really does is revolutionize a technology that hasn't changed since Louis Pasteur used plates to grow bacteria cultures.

An infrared beam ricochets off the mirrors and passes through the bacteria multiple times, creating an image used to identify the bacteria that afflict a patient.

The key is it takes just five minutes. The existing technology takes three hours.

"It basically reduces seeing a doctor to one visit. That's a big saving for health care," said Prystupa.

The technology is so sensitive, it can detect bacteria growth in 10 minutes. That's significant because it allows a clinician to determine quickly whether an antibiotic or medicine works. If the bacteria stop growing, the medicine works.

Prystupa is an inventor with a capital "I." This is just one of 17 pieces of intellectual property he's working on. His specialty is spectroscopy, the study of radiation with matter.

Prystupa used to rub shoulders with Nobel Prize winners while studying at Cambridge University in England.

Today, like a handful of other scientists, he rents lab space at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s Whiteshell Laboratories near Pinawa, about 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Prystupa was raised in Winnipeg, studied at the University of Winnipeg on a full scholarship, obtained his PhD in physics from the University of Waterloo and did two years of post-doctorate work at Cambridge, which boasts of having had 25 Nobel winners in its physics faculty. Prystupa used to go to lunch with Nobel winners.

A family emergency brought him back to Winnipeg and he taught for a period before venturing off on his own research. It's what he always wanted to do.

"I traded the certainty of an academic salary for the prospect of a much larger reward (retaining patent rights). In Canada's culture, that is a rare choice," he said.

He supports himself with grants, some private investment and shareholders in his company, Spectrum Scientific Inc (

"I don't know anyone else who can think the way he does and come up with results like he does," said his business partner, Lyle Merrell, who came from the pharmaceutical industry.

Prystupa, 50, also remains close to his Ukrainian roots. He's a member of the Romanetz Ukrainian Dance Ensemble and has relatives in Ukraine who worked for the resistance against Russian rule and who helped pull down statues of Lenin when the Soviet Union fell.

Prystupa's bacteria detector isn't even the invention closest to going to market. His most advanced invention is technology that separates out kernels diseased with ergot and fusarium in 27 different cultivars of wheat. Such a separator could hold huge savings for Prairie farmers.

His bacteria detector is largely mathematical: lining up all the mirrors (it will employ from nine to 11 mirrors) at proper angles.

"It's really a big exercise in linear algebra," Prystupa said.

It detects bacteria such as E. coli, anthrax, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and pneumonia. There is a $14-billion global market for bacteria detection, Prystupa said.

The bacteria detector could be used in personal-care homes to detect the presence of pathogens.

An adult in a personal-care home is 17 times more susceptible to pathogens than is an adult in his or her prime.

It could also be used in food inspection. Currently, one in every 20,000 cuts of meat is inspected in a meat-packing plant. Prystupa's invention, by testing the rinse water used to wash each cut of meat, could test every piece of meat that reaches store shelves.

He is working with Prof. Cyrus Shafai of the University of Manitoba to develop a spectrometer on a microchip so the bacteria detector would be a handheld instrument.

"The science is largely done but it needs a whole lot of engineering," Prystupa said.

He hopes to license his invention to a larger company to do the engineering and marketing work.

The company could get the technology to market in two years and earn revenue for 18 years on the 20-year patent, which was approved this year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 A11

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