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Sentinel Safety Through New Super Papers

The word 'sentinel' implies two functions: warning of impending danger as well as one of protection by a guard or sentry. Thus, it is the perfect choice for the name of this Bioactive Paper Network si...

December 1, 2006  By Pulp & Paper Canada

The word ‘sentinel’ implies two functions: warning of impending danger as well as one of protection by a guard or sentry. Thus, it is the perfect choice for the name of this Bioactive Paper Network since the paper under development by this association of researchers will incorporate biologically active chemicals that will detect, repel and, potentially, deactivate water-based or airborne pathogens.

Although these papers do not exist yet, research is moving closer to solutions that have a strong potential to improve the health and safety of not only the residents of our country and other industrialized nations but also developing countries.

For the last century, paper has been exploited for its low cost, disposability, sterility and well-defined porosity in sterile packaging, food wrap and protective clothing. However, most of these functions serve simply as a passive barrier or filter in protecting us from pathogens. Now current events including SARS, water quality problems, incidents of tainted beef and international terrorism underscore our vulnerability to biological hazards.


Envision, then, paper that can signal wide-ranging contamination through colour indication while actively removing the unwanted organisms, such as E. coli and Pythium. The approach will be to use special proteins attached to the structure of the paper which will combine a cellulose-binding domain and an antibody to bind pathogens and other contaminants.

The uses for these high-value products with advanced functionality are manifold.

In the developing world, the water is often of questionable quality, forcing the local population to try rudimentary filtration systems, such as the use of unsanitary cloth in a vain attempt to create potable water. This method, and others like it, are obviously not reliable and the results are rarely safe for consumption, particularly after floods and other natural disasters. Think of the benefits of a bioactive paper strip which, when dipped in small containers of water, can remove pathogens and give the user a colour indication that the water is innoxious.

Other potential uses of bioactive paper include the creation of face masks that protect health-care workers by actively binding viruses and anchoring them to the filter surface thereby preventing them from passing through the filter’s pores. Contaminated food preparation surfaces could be revealed through the use of paper towels which, with one swipe, can detect the presence of bacteria.

In the beginning . . .

All this might sound like futuristic projection yet there are laboratories around Canada where researchers are uncovering methods to create this new line of innovative, value-added paper and packaging products.

How did it come about?

The beginning lies with another network within the federally sponsored National Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. One of the groups, the Mechanical Wood-Pulps Network ran successfully for many years before coming to the end of its term.

“It showed us the value of working together as a collection of researchers instead of everybody doing their own thing,” said Dr. Pelton, the Scientific Director of SENTINEL. “When that wound down, we thought, what else could we do? What else is important?”

The federal government played an important role during this time, pointed out Dr. George Rosenberg, the Network Manager for SENTINEL. The government provided research management funds of $500,000 for a two-year period which were used to establish PAPIER (Canadian Pulp and Paper Network for Innovation in Education and Research), to explore the possibility of putting together a new network. This gave the group the necessary time to make the transition from the Mechanical Wood-Pulps Network to another network with a different goal.

“Most difficult was to create a vision that engaged the scientific community and the industry partners,” admitted Dr. Pelton. “Without that you’re really going nowhere.”

Once the idea of bioactive paper had been conceptualized, a timeline was organized to make sense within the academic community.

With the help and support of Paprican (the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada), the group of academic researchers put together a proposal to present to the federal government through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) which is the primary body through which university professors and research scientists apply for research grants. Dr. Rosenberg explained that the standard measure of success for the federal government is to see new science, journal publications, inventions and patents. To justify the investment for Canada, the government wants to see highly qualified people involved, graduate students being trained and effective partnerships with private companies.

“It’s quite an onerous application program,” explained Dr. Pelton. “After you get commitments from the private companies, there was an international committee of scientists, with people from across Canada, Sweden and the southern US who quizzed the research scientists, and quizzed the administration.”

The application process also demanded a requisite 25% private sector support that was gathered by Dr. Pelton and Dr. Rosenberg from across North America and Europe. It was also important to promote a strong collaboration with industry partners in order to develop a collective research program so that commercial enterprise could take ownership in the vision. In return for providing a significant investment and playing a critical role in providing guidance, the major benefit to the industrial partners would be as the co-developers of any future products.

“We were pretty successful. People could easily understand the concepts,” said Dr. Pelton. “You could ride home from the airport in a taxi and explain to the driver what bioactive paper was and he could understand that it would be useful to have a paper that could wipe up the kitchen counter and signal that it was contaminated. So, it’s a good story to tell because people get it.”

SENTINEL was approved in May 2005, with the research officially inaugurated the following September by 24 top Canadian professors and their students at ten universities across Canada. The federal government is the cornerstone funder through NSERC, providing $7.5 million over five years. Supporting these efforts are the industrial partners and the Ontario Centres of Excellence who have committed over $2.5 million and significant in-kind contributions over the same period to make up the balance.

Future benefits

The best way to improve the health of the people in Canada is to treat possible sources of disease in developing countries. According to the researchers, one of the most important applications will be in places where large scale conventional medical testing is still not possible. Bioactive paper, such as detectors on paper substrates, might not be as sensitive as that provided by more complex technology but it will be a less expensive and, therefore, more practical test of the purity of the water where expensive instrumentation is not available.

Another potential source of contagion is the area of food preparation, as has been noted in recent well-publicized cases involving spinach, carrot juice and some brands of chocolate. In order to test for hygienic conditions, the current state of the art technology demands a collection of a liquid sample on which, in Dr. Pelton’s words, a “CSI-type examination” is done, analyzing for DNA pathogens through expensive, computerized equipment. These tests often take several hours.

“That’s a far cry from dipping a piece of paper and getting the answer in an instant,” Dr. Pelton pointed out.

He also explained the importance of the biotechnology that will lead to creating these special papers economically. The detection systems for the bioactive papers are biologically based on substances such as enzymes and anti-bodies and the materials now used in research laboratori
es are enormously expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for a few milligrams. However, if there is a wide-spread need for any particular substance, research will eventually provide inexpensive methods of production.

“A classic example of that is in our laundry detergents,” stated Dr. Pelton. “All our laundry detergents are chock-full of enzymes. When I was a young scientist, the thought that we could ever afford to put enzymes in our commercial soap products for pennies was unbelievable. But now it works so well.”

One of the initial problems was to attach the protein or enzyme to the paper but there are already two or three solutions that have been studied and appear successful. Other foreseeable challenges to overcome include the temperature sensitivity of the ingredients. Researchers know the necessity of keeping these ingredients under refrigeration and replacing them whenever necessary since few can survive in ambient temperatures under less than ideal conditions.

Current status

The success of the program has depended on the multidisciplinary research to encompass wide-ranging expertise and an innovative management structure. The network now harnesses the creative talents of pulp and paper scientists as well as specialists in materials engineering and life science, including immunochemists, biochemists, microbiologists and food scientists, all bringing in their knowledge and experience to the research, structured around four technology platforms. Along with the key industry collaboration, this will ensure a high level of research integration.

As with any government research grant, a principle investigator is appointed whose name goes at the top of the research grant application. In the case of SENTINEL, Dr. Pelton took the leadership position in putting together the research grant applications and the home institution of the scientific leader of the network made McMaster University of Hamilton, Ontario, the de facto lead institution.

SENTINEL’s researchers are already involved in 23 projects, generating new knowledge and testing prototypes which are close to fruition. Within six months to a year, the first technically exploitable results will be ready to file for patent. These applications will serve as the experimental platforms for the industry partners who will develop the proprietary products and business opportunities based on the research.

“The private companies will take care of the development of the products and the markets,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “That’s not our domain. We provide them with the tools and the rest is really up to them.”

The network itself is funded for the next four years, coming to an end in September 2010. One of the objectives is to continue doing the research and to obtain sustainability for the network beyond the five-year term that had commenced in September 2005. The skills developed through this research will greatly benefit the pulp and paper industry as it evolves from a supplier of commodity pulp and paper to a supplier of value-added goods with advanced functionality.

According to Dr. Pelton, these research activities can not only enhance the value of paper but could also have an international impact since the development of bioactive papers is one area where Canada is ahead of major competition.

Dr. Pelton agreed with the benefits of a more open-ended timeline. “There are some serious technological challenges to overcome before you see consumer level products,” he said. “But I’m confident that we’ll do something memorable.



Protective clothing

Water purification

Air filters

Face masks


Food packaging

Health monitoring





Brand protection


THE SENTINEL VISION * The SENTINEL Bioactive Paper Network will develop critical technology platforms leading to commercial scale production of bioactive papers that will detect, capture and deactivate waterborne and airborne pathogens.

THE KEY ELEMENTS OF THE VISION ARE: 1. Paper giving instant visible indications of pathogens 2. High speed manufacturing using inexpensive coating and printing technologies.

EXPECTED OUTCOMES: 1. Inexpensive, high-speed methods for applying pathogen-sensing biopolymers onto fibres and paper; 2. Nano-scale control of biosensor orientation in or on paper, maximizing the efficiency of expensive reagents; 3. New approaches to stabilizing fragile biosensor molecules when applied to paper; 4. Defining optimized paper structure and surface chemistries for pathogen-sensing, capture or barrier applications; 5. Novel biocides for bioactive paper; and 6. New pathogen sensors based on combinations of antibodies, enzymes, aptamers or phages.


WHO IS INVOLVED? How many academics? 22 Professors 3 Adjunct Professors 26 Graduate students (MSc/MAS=12; PhD=14) 11.5 Postdoctoral fellows 5 Technical or professional assistants

OF THE ACADEMICS, HOW MANY CHAIRHOLDERS? 6 Canada Research Chairs 3 NSERC Industrial Research Chairs 1 Endowed Chair

HOW MANY UNIVERSITIES? 1. cole Polytechnique de Montral 2. McGill University 3. McMaster University 4. University of Alberta 5. University of British Columbia 6. University of Guelph 7. Universit de Montral 8. University of New Brunswick 9. Universit du Qubec Trois-Rivires 10. University of Toronto

INDUSTRIAL NETWORK PARTNERS 1. Ahlstrom Research and Services 2. Buckman Laboratories International 3. Cascades Canada 4. Fujifilm Dimatix 5. Paprican (Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada) 6. Stora Enso Oyj 7. Sun Chemical 8. Tembec 9. Weyerhaeuser

GOVERNMENT NETWORK PARTNERS 1. National Research Council – Institute for Biological Sciences 2. Ontario Centres of Excellence – Centre for Materials and Manufacturing 3. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada


Those originally active in the proposal were Prof. Robert Pelton (McMaster University), Prof. T.G.M. van de Ven (McGill University), Prof. Richard Kerekes (University of British Columbia) and Prof. J. Christopher Hall (University of Guelph) along with Dr. George Rosenberg .

Dr. Pelton who leads the SENTINEL network, also holds the Canada Research Chair in Interfacial Technologies and is the Director of the McMaster Centre for Pulp and Paper Research.

Prof. van de Ven leads the Surface Science theme within SENTINEL and holds the Paprican Industrial Chair in Colloid and Papermaking Chemistry and is the Director of the McGill University Pulp and Paper Centre.

Prof. Kerekes leads the Materials Science theme. He was the founding Director of the Pulp Paper Centre at UBC and was the Paprican Professor of Pulp and Paper Engineering.

Leading the Bio Science theme is Prof. Hall who is an expert in large-scale recombinant antibody production technology and immunoassay formatting. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Recombinant Antibody Technology at the University of Guelph.

Dr. George Rosenberg is the Network Manager and previously managed both the Mechanical Wood-Pulps NCE and the Canadian Pulp and Paper Network for Innovation in Education and Research (PAPIER).

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