Safer Anthrax Test Aims To Keep The Bioweapon From Terrorists

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Safe and small: The credit-card-sized test for anthrax destroys the deadly bacteria after the test completes. (Courtesy of Sandia Nation)
Safe and small: The credit-card-sized test for anthrax destroys the deadly bacteria after the test completes. (Courtesy of Sandia Nation)

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratory have come up with what they think is a safer diagnostic test for anthrax bacteria — a test that would prevent the "bad guys" from getting their hands on this dangerous pathogen.

Sandia is home to the International Biological Threat Reduction Program. "Our interest is in safety and security of pathogens," says Melissa Finley. Finley isn't a bioweapons expert. She's a veterinarian.

But veterinarians know about anthrax because it's caused by a bacteria that lives in soil, and it can infect livestock. So veterinary labs have to be able to test for it.

Sandia sends vets like Finley to countries around the world to make sure their tests are performed in a secure manner and the anthrax doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

"My country happens to be Afghanistan," says Finley. She says Afghanistan has a curious problem when it comes to anthrax. The country is a big exporter of animal hides. But these hides can be contaminated with Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria. Exporters would like to prove their hides aren't.

"If they can certify them free of Bacillus anthracis spores, then they can get more money for the hide," says Finley.

For the most reliable test, you have to grow the bacteria. But the U.S. worries that a bunch of labs in Afghanistan growing anthrax won't do much for biological threat reduction.

"So we were working with them to try to identify an alternate method," Finley says. She went back to New Mexico and told Sandia engineers she needed a test that would require only a tiny sample that would be destroyed when the test was over.

The engineers at Sandia made a credit-card-size device. A sample first goes into a tiny growth chamber, where bacteria in the sample can divide a few times. Then the sample goes into a test chamber. Fifteen minutes later, you get a color change, whether it's positive or negative, "similar to what you might see in a pregnancy test."

And then a powerful antiseptic chemical destroys the bacteria. And there's nothing for a terrorist to steal.

It'll be a few years before the test is ready for prime time. But if it works as advertised, it should make the world a safer place.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is time for the next installment of Joe's Big Idea from NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Today, he visits with scientists in Albuquerque who say a new test could stop terrorists in Afghanistan from getting their hands on anthrax.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Sandia National Lab is home for the International Biological Threat Reduction program.

MELISSA FINLEY: Our interest is in, basically, safety and security of pathogens.

PALCA: That's Melissa Finley. She's not a bio-weapons expert. She's a veterinarian. But veterinarians know about anthrax because it's caused by bacteria that lives in soil and can infect livestock. So veterinary labs have to be able to test for it. Sandia sends vets like Finley to countries around the world to make sure their tests are done in a secure manner and the anthrax doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

FINLEY: My country happens to be Afghanistan.

PALCA: Finley says Afghanistan has a curious problem when it comes to anthrax. The country is a big exporter of animal hides. But she says these hides can be contaminated with bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria. Exporters would like to test to prove their hides aren't.

FINLEY: If they can certify them free of bacillus anthracis spores, then they get more money for the hide.

PALCA: For the most reliable test, you have to grow the bacteria. But the United States worries a bunch of labs in Afghanistan growing the anthrax bacteria isn't conducive to biological threat reduction.

FINLEY: So we were working with them to try to identify an alternate method.

PALCA: She went back to New Mexico and told Sandia engineers she needed a test that would only require a tiny sample that would be destroyed when the test was over.

FINLEY: And the microfluidics guys were, like, yeah, we could make a microculture chamber. And we could then connect it to a lateral flow assay.

PALCA: In non-engineer speak - they made a credit card-sized device. A sample first goes into a tiny growth chamber where any bacteria in the sample can divide a few times. Then, the sample goes into a test chamber.

FINLEY: Wait for roughly 15 minutes and you get a color change, whether it's positive or negative, similar to what you might see in a pregnancy test.

PALCA: And then, a powerful antiseptic chemical destroys the bacteria - nothing for terrorists to steal. It'll be a few years before the test is ready for primetime. But if it works as advertised, it should make the world a safer place. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.