PORTLAND, Ore. " A "while-you-wait" detector can sense airborne pathogens from just a few dozen particles in less three minutes, more than seven times faster than the best sensors available today. Using genetically engineered immune cells (mice "B" cells)--which have been functionalized with antigens that bind to pathogens--as many as 48 different toxins can be simultaneously screened--from anthrax, plague, smallpox, salmonella and E. coli to chemical toxins, such as smallpox. The 37-pound prototype, crafted by its inventor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Lincoln Labs, was recently reduced to a 20 pound commercial version by exclusive licensee, Innovative Biosensors Inc. (IBI, Rockville, Md.)
"Innovative Biosensors has taken our laboratory prototype and made a commercial version that could monitor buildings, subways and other public areas," said the lead scientist developing the sensor, James Harper, at Lincoln Lab's Biosensor and Molecular Technologies Group. "Its speed will allow first responders to take action before it is too late."
"We named the technology "Canary," after the birds sent into mines to detect dangerous gases, "said Todd Rider, inventor of the technique at Lincoln Labs."There's is nothing available today that works as quickly."
Rival sensor technology for rapidly detecting airborne pathogens use the popular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) approach, which uses DNA to identify pathogens. Unfortunately, PCR's complexity takes much longer and is not as sensitive as Canary, according to the Lincoln Labs researchers. Instead, Canary uses genetically engineered mouse cells that have been treated by IBI with antigens specifically sensitive to as few as 24 molecules of a specific pathogen. Then, a protein harvested from jellyfish makes any antigen glow fluorescent that has encountered its matching pathogen. The device--called Panther (PAthogen Notification for THreatening Environmental Releases)--then scans the array to see which, if any, cells are glowing and notifies the operator which pathogen has been detected.
Panther uses disposable disks that are inserted into the machine for each use. IBI is manufacturing the device and the disposable test disks under the brand mane "Bioflash."
Besides providing building security, Bioflash is also being marketed for use by farms and food-processing plants to test for E. coli contamination and other food-borne pathogens. The device could also be used in doctors' offices, where body fluid samples could be quickly tested while patients wait.
Funding was provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.