High-traffic facilities like airports, office buildings, rail stations, and sporting arenas serve hundreds of thousands of people each day, making them particularly susceptible to silent and invisible biological attacks. Researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have now developed a new stand-alone detector that can provide early warning to help authorities limit exposure and start treating victims before they show symptoms of full-blown infection.
The instrument, called the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System, or APDS, continuously monitors the air like a "biological smoke detector," said John Dzenitis, Ph.D., a chemical engineer at LLNL and corresponding author of the paper. It is capable of detecting and identifying three types of biological agents: bacteria, viruses, and toxins, including such familiar threats as anthrax, plague, and botulinum toxin. The machine runs the same tests that molecular biologists would carry out in a laboratory to detect biological agents, providing information that is required before definitive public-health action can be taken.
LLNL has been working on this instrument since 1995, but this new version, tested at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, is a step-change in capability, Dzenitis said. Now, in addition to simultaneously testing for multiple agents with protein antibodies, the APDS also confirms positive results with a DNA test specific for the agent. No other field system has two independent molecular biology tests. Having two laboratory-quality tests further reduces the probability of a false alarm and gives confidence for effective response.