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Rapid Mobile Bio-Threat Detector Developed By Sandia Lab

In the event of a mass casualty bio-attack, hospital emergency rooms will quickly be overwhelmed. Hospitals nationwide have limited surge capacity to handle a sudden influx of patients.

A pathogenic attack that’s unable to be identified quickly and early will compound the problem as increasing numbers of infected people flood hospitals’ ERs and mobile triage facilities that will have to be erected or established to accept the growing number of victims. The situation will be exacerbated if the pathogen is highly transmissible between humans.

But now scientists at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) are on the verge of developing a technology that can be used in ERs and by first responders to rapidly identify a pathogenic WMD attack that’s potentially contagious. SNL researchers have made groundbreaking strides in developing a portable device that is able to quickly detect biological pathogens that terrorists might use in a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) attack, including anthrax, ricin, botulinum, shiga and SEB toxin.

But the technology, called SpinDx, also has much wider applicability to the homeland security community.

“Not only can the device screen clinical samples, we also expect it to be very useful to analyze water, aerosol effluent, milk, juice and other liquefied food to look for biothreat agents,” said Anup Singh, senior manager for Sandia’s biological science and technology group, in an e-mail response to questions by Homeland Security Today. "SpinDx does not require any off-device sample prep and hence, is compatible with many different types of samples. It can also be useful to screen cattle in an event of natural or man-made agricultural terrorism incident."

Once developed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration and commercialized, the technology not only would be used in emergency rooms in the event of a bioterrorism incident, but it also can be used by first responders.

“This is an unmet need for the nation’s biodefense program. A point-of-care device does not exist,” said Singh.

“In case of an alleged bioterror event, it is expected that emergency rooms will be overwhelmed by people who are infected or who think that may be infected,” said Singh. “Our ERs are not capable of screening large numbers of people quickly. One reason is that they do not have access to technology that can be used to screen people rapidly,” he said.

Sandia’s SpinDx device features centrifugal microfluidics, or “lab-on-a-disk” technology, which uses centrifugal forces to manipulate samples and reagents through microfluidic channels implanted on disks that are of the same size as a standard CD or DVD.

“We expect SpinDx to be a potential solution as it is fast, portable and simple to use,” said Singh. “An ER doctor or nurse can take a pin-prick blood sample from a person, insert into a disk, load the disk into SpinDx and run SpinDx. After about 15 min, SpinDx will display the relative amount of toxin present on an LCD panel on the device or on a computer linked to the device. It is possible to run samples from multiple persons simultaneously as well as look for multiple agents simultaneously.”

Sandia’s work is funded by a four year, $4 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has funded a number of recent projects at Sandia.

“This will take things to the next level,” said Singh. In addition to the broader suite of toxins and bacterial agents that the device would test for, the project includes comprehensive testing with animal (mouse) samples.

This is an important step, according to Singh, who explained that toxins may behave differently in live animals and humans than in laboratory blood samples.

“We are getting closer and closer to translational elements of research, which involves testing in animal and clinical facilities,” said Singh. “This is part of the maturation of our bioresearch activities at Sandia.”

The project also will increase what SpinDx can do, Singh said.

“When you look for bacterial agents, you don’t want to rely solely on proteins because you won’t get the detection sensitivity you need,” said Singh. “So we are also using other methods that may lead to better detection limits and additional confirmation.”

SNL said the new NIH project includes collaborators with expertise in animal modeling as well as device manufacturing.

The University of Texas Medical Branch and the US Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., are providing Sandia with expert insight into toxins and diseases at animal lab facilities.

Bio-Rad, a manufacturer and distributor of a variety of devices and laboratory technologies, also is serving as a consultant on the project to evaluate plans for product development, assisting with manufacturers’ criteria on the device that is finally developed and providing important feedback when a prototype is built.

“You’ve got to keep innovating and coming up with the next thing,” said Singh. “Every technology has its lifecycle. As good as SpinDx is, we know there will be other technologies, better technologies that come along in the next few years. We have to continue to innovate to meet the needs of our customers, understand what other competing technologies are being designed to solve the problems and develop technologies that provide an improvement.”

Singh pointed out that the need for diagnostic devices for biodefense is not going away because there are always new diseases emerging for which there are inadequate diagnostic assays.

“Plus, we want dual-use devices that combat both man-made and nature-made problems,” said Singh. “We’re not just going to wait for the next anthrax letter incident to happen for our devices to be used and tested; we want them to be useful for other things as well, like infectious diseases.”

Expanding into those areas will keep Sandia’s bioresearch efforts engaged for years to come, said Singh.

“That’s where the value of the national labs really comes in,” Singh said. “Our capabilities and culture are a very good fit for tackling long-term problems that require a sustained effort.”


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