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Feds, industry rush to make cheap biohazard detectors

From Jeanne Meserve
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the wake of the World Trade Center assault and, perhaps more importantly, the U.S. anthrax attacks, demand has risen rapidly for devices that can quickly determine the presence of dangerous pathogens.

One of the most worrisome aspects of anthrax, or terrorism's other biological threats, is the fact that victims usually do not know they've been exposed until they have been seriously infected.

The Pentagon is equipped with devices that sniff out biological agents. But the equipment is big, expensive and requires trained military personnel to run it. So how do we detect a biological attack on civilians?

"Right now, let's face it. We're essentially using you and I and everyone else as canaries in the mine. We are the detectors. To the extent that people get sick, that is how we know that we've been attacked," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Researchers in the field of nuclear, biological and chemical protection, or "NBC," used to joke that the acronym stood for "nobody cares." But September 11 changed that.

"It is a different world in that the sense of urgency and sense of need is so much heightened," said Rick Thomas of the Environmental Technologies Group.

A huge effort is under way in government laboratories, universities and in private industry to bring DNA technology into the field to identify anthrax, smallpox, and a range of other biological agents quickly and relatively cheaply.

Within a year or two, detectors with unique capabilities might be deployed, such as one that is a "fully automated system that behaves like a smoke alarm, a biological smoke alarm," said Richard Langlois of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It continuously monitors the air, pulling out particles for DNA analysis to identify pathogens. Someday, there might be networks of sensors providing coverage for entire metropolitan areas.

"We want autonomous units throughout a city beaming back information in a wireless way," Stoutland said.

The keys on the sensors are large because first responder emergency workers using them would wear bulky hazardous material suits.

The technology in the handheld biological detector was developed at Lawrence Livermore. A private Maryland firm is modifying the design for sale to emergency personnel as early as this summer.

A sample is put in solution, inserted and tested in as little as 10 minutes.

"Since it looks at the basic building block of life, DNA, it can tell with a high degree of confidence what agent you are actually looking at," said John Schmidt of the Environmental Technologies Group.

In a decade or less, experts predict, DNA detection technology will be miniaturized even further into something they call a lab-on-a-chip. They would be so small and inexpensive that they could be put almost anywhere, protecting almost everyone.


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