PEN – Uniting the world to tackle the scourge of E.coli
E.coli is a term unpleasantly familiar to people all around the world. Outbreaks of infection make dramatic headlines whenever they occur – and with good reason. While some E.coli strains are harmless, the ones we get to hear about are virulent, debilitating and often fatal.
One of the biggest E.coli outbreaks occurred in Japan in 1996, when 6,000 people became ill and 17 died after eating bean sprouts contaminated with E.coli O157. With E.coli infections increasing worldwide and new strains expected to keep emerging, this pathogen has become a major global public health issue.
So it is no surprise to learn that the EU-funded PEN (Pathogenic E.coli Network) project, set up in 2007 under the Food Quality and Safety theme within Framework Programme 6, had a very simply stated aim: to reduce the burden of illness related to the E.coli bacterium, in particular E.coli O157.
The background against which the project started work was both a daunting and an urgent one. In spite of considerable past research, there were still areas where a fundamental understanding of E.coli was lacking. Moreover, technical issues and a lack of harmonisation - between academic disciplines, between the various elements of the food-chain, and between continents - meant that the results of much previous research had not been put to optimal use.
Meanwhile, the impact of E.coli infections was all too plain to see. On top of the toll in lives and human illness, E.coli infections had economic consequences as well – lost working days, adverse publicity for the countries and companies involved, with resulting losses of tourism, sales, market share and profits.
Co-ordinated by the Irish agriculture and food development authority, Teagasc, the PEN project involved 35 international research groups in a three-year work programme designed to improve and disseminate understanding of all aspects of E.coli. These included its molecular make-up, ways of detecting it, understanding how it spreads, assessing how virulent any given strain may be, and how outbreaks can be better controlled and managed in the future.
Given the global nature of E.coli, an important feature of the project was that its 35 partner organisations were drawn not just from Europe but from around the world, with institutes from Australia, Chile, Israel, New Zealand and the USA all taking part.
Building on this extensive participation, one of Pens' key successes was the creation of a single platform to disseminate information and expertise about E.coli around the world, for the benefit of everyone involved in the effort to understand and manage this threat - from microbial researchers to regulators, legislators, the food industry and public health experts. The project went on to develop science-based risk-management strategies tailored for use both by farmers and by the food-processing industry, and provided information and guidance for public health professionals and regulators on ways to detect, assess and manage newly emerging strains of E.coli.
The legacy of PEN is clear. By bringing together such an eminent and multidisciplinary group of researchers from around the world, it resulted not only in far greater understanding of the scourge of E.coli. It also – just as importantly – provided an efficient way of disseminating that information, for the benefit not just of European but of global food safety and public health.
As the Japanese incident and countless others have demonstrated, when E.coli outbreaks occur, swift and effective action is vital. Today, thanks to PEN, the world is better placed than ever to meet that challenge.