– Analytical method will help prevent occupational allergy and asthma in seafood processing workers

Researchers at Memorial University have developed a novel technique that will help prevent occupational allergy and asthma in seafood processing workers.

Dr. Anas Abdel Rahman, a former doctoral student of chemistry at Memorial University, and his supervisor, Dr. Bob Helleur, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, developed the technique. It measures airborne, particulate materials using mass spectrometry and can accurately map the distribution of allergy-causing proteins in seafood workplaces.

“There are estimated to be 30,000 seafood-processing workers in Eastern Canada and globally almost 45 million are employed in fishing and processing,” said Dr. Abdel Rahman. “Occupational allergy and asthma to seafood is caused by exposure to proteins that are aerosolized during processing. Until recently, these proteins were unknown and there was no cheap and accurate way to measure the levels of these proteins in different parts of the processing plants.”

Drs. Abdel Rahman and Helleur joined with Dr. John Robinson, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Memorial, and researchers in South Africa, Australia and Quebec to come up with a resolution.

The initial stages of Dr. Abdel Rahman’s research were funded through the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research at Memorial University, with funds from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research as part of a larger research program on occupational allergy and asthma to snow crab.

That larger research program measured exposures in Newfoundland and Labrador using methods originally developed in Quebec. Recently, the resulting mass spectrometry technique was transferred back to Quebec researchers, helping them do a much better job of sampling in their own facilities than they were previously able to do.

“With the new methodology the proteins can now be directly measured in air samples collected on a filter,” said Sébastien Gagné, Institute de recherche en santé et en sécurité au travail in Quebec. “These protein-specific measurements are crucial in the field of occupational health and safety as they allow an accurate workplace mapping of the distribution of the crustacean allergens. Workplace mapping is a mandatory step to evaluate adequately the risk of exposure.”

“SafetyNet funded the startup research for this initiative and helped link Dr. Abdel Rahman with a global network of researchers studying occupational allergy and asthma to seafood,” said Dr. Barbara Neis, co-director, SafetyNet. “SafetyNet also hosted the inaugural meeting of the network in St. John’s and Drs. Abdel Rahman and Helleur used these networks and funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Mitacs, a national not-for-profit research organization, and Memorial’s School of Graduate Studies to complete the research.”

In addition to Quebec, the technique is now being used routinely at Memorial University in collaboration with Eastern Health, and will also be transferred to Melbourne, Australia. Interest has also been expressed by Denmark and Greenland.