A needle that uses a miniscule camera to measure lamb intramuscular fat instantly could be commercialised within three years, if a team of South Australian scientists has their way.
A team of medical engineers and livestock researchers from the University of Adelaide, in collaboration with Meat & Livestock Australia and tech start-up Miniprobes, has been awarded a $1.5 million Commonwealth Government Cooperative Research Centre Projects grant to develop the device.
The IMF needle is a stainless-steel needle fitted with a tiny lens on the end of an optical fibre, which when inserted provides a high-resolution scan of the fat structure within muscle.
Its design is based on 10 years of research and development from the University of Adelaide and University of Western Australia.
Lead researcher Robert McLaughlin from the University of Adelaide's Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, also the managing director of Miniprobes, said the technology was originally intended for identifying human cancer cells.
After a conversation with MLA two years ago, it became clear that the needle could have big implications in the burgeoning lamb IMF measurement sector.
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"As an engineer you can't always tell where your research is going to go... we worked with some incredible breast cancer surgeons over in Western Australia and what we found is that we weren't seeing the cancer clearly enough but we were always seeing the fat," Professor McLaughlin said.
"The value that MLA bring... the ability to open doors, the ability to work with people in the industry are things that we would never be able to do without them.
"We're at a stage where we're rapidly iterating this technology... this is something we really believe is going to work and it's going to work really well."
In an MLA-funded pilot study of the needle, researchers were able to estimate intramuscular fat in hot carcases with an average of 0.9 per cent error.
Researchers regularly test the device during processing of MLA's information nucleus flock, finetuning the technology based on each round of testing.
"This device will provide our exporters with a technological advantage over lamb from other countries, with the potential to increase Australian sheep meat sales by $183 million per year," Prof McLaughlin said.
Over the next year the team plans to finish the research and development stage, before spending the next two years focusing on creating a product that can work at speed and doing extensive trials within processing facilities.
"Our goal is to in three years' time be at the point where we're just about to launch to market," Prof McLaughlin said.
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