New Approach to Biological Threat Detection Promises Savings for Defense, Homeland Security

By Stew Magnuson
Detecting biological agents in the field has been a tough technological challenge in the military and homeland security realms.

It’s a “needle-in-a-haystack” problem to find potentially deadly airborne microbes, but not impossible to solve. Biological threats, for example, can be detected onsite, but the machines are as large as refrigerators, and obtaining results may take hours or days depending on whether samples can be processed automatically inside the equipment or must be taken back to a laboratory.

The nonprofit lab Battelle recently introduced an all-inclusive chemical-biological-explosive detector the size of a microwave oven that can detect airborne pathogens in minutes with recurring costs of about $1 per day as opposed to other lab-in-a-box systems that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per day to operate.

It made the breakthrough by taking a different approach to the problem, said Matt Shaw, vice president and general manager of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive programs at Battelle.

The new Resource Effective Bioidentification System, REBS, uses raman spectroscopy rather than fluidics and reagents to find potentially harmful bioweapons or diseases.

“Biological materials, be they bacteria, viruses or toxins, have distinct chemical signatures that raman spectroscopy is able to pick out from the vast array of other signatures that are out there,” he said.

Raman uses a laser to shoot energy at particles to “interrogate” them. The particles give off a light signature that is picked up by a raman camera. It creates a spectrograph of the particle and compares it to a library of dozens of dangerous pathogens.

Before that happens, air samples are collected on a dime-sized piece of tape. Every 15 minutes or so, the sample is placed under the laser, which begins looking at the particles spending only microseconds on each one. If there is no match, the laser moves on to the next particle. Once a swath is investigated, the reel-to-reel tape moves the next air sample in, he said.

Biological agents, chemicals that comprise poison gas and the materials found in explosives all give off a chemical signature, he noted. 

“We settled on raman largely because of its great ability to exploit chemical signatures of materials such as explosives,” he said.

Battelle has been in the chem-bio detecting business for decades. It produced the first-generation detectors, the biological integrated detection system that was fielded in the first Gulf War. It had to be hauled by humvees, took two technicians to operate and cost $1,000 per day to run.

It also built and fielded for the Army the currently deployed detectors, the joint bio point detection system. There are about 800 of those worldwide used for base protection. They employ fluidics and reagents to discover if there are any airborne pathogens. A technician must replace the consumables it requires to operate every few days. They cost about $500 per day to run.

REBS has one item that must be replaced: the VHS cassette-sized cartridge that moves the dime-sized samples under the laser. It is as easy to replace as a VCR tape, and only has to be done about every two weeks, Shaw said.

Another advantage is the speed at which new threats can be loaded in the library. When a new virus or biological agent emerges, it normally takes months to come up with a means to detect it. It requires growing samples in live animals, for example.

Once a new threat is found, a raman laser with its camera can read its spectrograph and send the results wirelessly to other REBS devices around the world.

The Army issued a request for proposals for a joint bio point detection systems replacement, and Battelle responded with REBS.

Shaw said the technology does seem like a good fit for the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch Generation 3 program, which sought to place self-contained biological detectors in cities throughout the United States to sniff out bio-weapons.

It was canceled last year and the program is at a standstill. Battelle is in a wait-and-see mode as far as that program is concerned, he said.

Meanwhile, it has already found niche markets for the device in the commercial sector. Sterile manufacturing facilities where medical devices are made, as well as some food processing plants, have an acute need to ensure that their factories are clean, he said.

Their technology needs are fairly similar to the Defense Department and DHS, Shaw said. “They need to pick needles out of haystack in the biological realm.” REBS is already being tested in some of these kinds of rooms.

“There really is some good leveraging of the technology and know-how across these markets, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Science and Engineering Technology

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