Epigem, a high-tech British micro-engineering company, has challenged 15 students from the Durham University-led SOFI CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces), to come up with solutions to prevent a dangerous carcinogen from contaminating milk.
This is part of a long standing relationship between Epigem and Durham University and will contribute to Epigem’s work in SYMPHONY, a European-backed project which is looking at how Aflatoxin M1, from its precursor Aflatoxin B1, enters the dairy and dairy products. The project will ultimately improve the quality and safety of milk.
The SOFI CDT is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is a collaboration of the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh.
Epigem’s work on SYMPHONY and collaboration with the SOFI CDT is providing the CDT students with an early opportunity to see how research is undertaken in multi-national collaborative projects in Europe. The students are gaining an appreciation of how industry operates, from the perspective of both small companies such as Epigem, and larger companies which are sponsoring SOFI. Dr Tim Ryan, Epigem’s managing director, set the context for the students with lectures on microfluidics and its role in both nature and industrial applications; and the students produced posters on a theme of interest to them. This was followed up with a visit to the Redcar company’s development facilities. Dr Ryan then gave each of three groups of five students a challenge:
- How does aflatoxin enter the cow, and then into milk?
- What is the best way to detect it at various stages of milk production?
- Why is the molecular structure of casein significant with respect to its properties as an anti-fouling agent?
Dr Ryan said:
Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen and its pathway into milk isn’t fully understood. We have set these students, some of the brightest minds in the country, the task of finding out everything there is to know about this process. This project has the potential to save lives and reduce the amount of milk which is wasted. At the same time, we are developing these young people into the scientific leaders of the future.
Dr Richard Thompson, Senior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Chemistry, said:
The ‘Milk Challenge’ with Epigem is the third industrial case study that the SOFI-CDT students have tackled and the first that has involved working with an SME. The problems draw on a full spectrum of biological and physical sciences, and have really captured the imagination of staff and student teams in the SOFI-CDT.
SOFI CDT student Ethan Miller said: “This is a great opportunity to see an innovative company from the inside, and to get first-hand experience of working on a project that is using cutting-edge science that could have real benefits for the dairy industry.”