In the 1968 Michael Crichton book “Andromeda Strain”, scientists working in the highest underground biosafety levels took days using the most sophisticated equipment available at the time to identify an alien pathogen.
In the 45 years since, the equipment and protocols have improved, but it can still take weeks or even months to identify some terrestrial toxins.
Now, a faster survey method has emerged.
A scientist at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute has developed a way of detecting bioterror threats in about an hour. The new process, called Rapid Antibody Pairing, is not only faster but cheaper, which may accelerate bioterror countermeasures.
Normally, this type of resource-intensive biochemical screening requires costly chromatography systems to purify and analyze protein molecules that can number in the hundreds and takes months to complete.
“I figured out a very simple and reliable way to bypass the need for purifying these proteins and scaling everything down such that a target capture assay can be developed in hours rather than weeks,” says Texas virologist Andrew Hayhurst.
Improvements in biothreat detection are welcome, not only to meet mandates of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, but to help protect police and other first responders at the scene of a suspected biochemical incident. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, suspicious packages and powders have triggered more than 30,000 responses by domestic police agencies since 2001—or about eight every day. These responses are expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous.
Hayhurst’s streamlined process performs at any biosafety level, with minimal equipment. “The system works at enhanced biosafety level 2 using botulinum neurotoxins—the world’s most poisonous poisons, and at biosafety level 4 using Ebolavirus Zaire, a hemorrhagic fever virus with 95 percent fatality rate,” he says. Botulinum neurotoxins and Ebolavirus are among the biothreats categorized as Tier 1 agents by the departments of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. Tier 1 agents present the most significant potential for mass casualties. The list also includes anthrax, Marburg virus, and plague.
Hayhurst says his methods are so straightforward that most laboratories are probably already familiar with the nuts and bolts of his new process, so it would be easy to adapt existing processes to take advantage of the benefits of the new system.
"Being able to respond quickly to known biological threats will better prepare us for combating emerging and engineered threats," Hayhurst says.
Better biochemical detectors
Hayhurst’s biothreat analysis work is not the only research effort attempting to harden the country against chemical-based terror attack. At the University of Maryland, scientists are working on a better way to detect biochemical weapons with a faster, more sensitive photodetector.
Researchers at the UM Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials have come up with a superconducting bolometer technology that can be used in everything from airport body scanners to standoff detection of chemical and biochemical weapons. A bolometer is a device for measuring electromagnetic radiation.
The UM bolometer uses two atom-thin sheets of graphene, whose unique properties make it sensitive to a broad range of light energies, from terahertz frequencies or submillimeter waves through infrared to visible light.
“The terahertz frequency range is an area of the electronic spectrum which is particularly difficult to detect, but is important for security applications, such as standoff detection of explosives or chemical weapons materials, and scanning of opaque objects such as structures or clothed people,” says UM physics professor Michael Fuhrer.