New device - the anthrax smoke detector

A new device, nicknamed "the anthrax smoke detector,' which relies on technology developed by JPL and Caltech scientists, may serve as a first line of defense against acts of bioterrorism.

The prototype will be unveiled Thursday by Universal Detection Technology (UDT), the Beverly Hills-based company making the device commercially available and that obtained exclusive rights to the technology from Caltech, which manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA.

The anthrax attacks of 2001 dramatically highlighted a need for reliable detectors of airborne bacteria. Since then, various companies have worked to produce accurate, sensitive devices to measure bacteria.

"About six months before the anthrax attacks, we realized that the chemistry we were working on for planetary protection applications was amenable to do air monitoring as well,' said Adrian Ponce, a senior member of the technical staff at JPL and a visiting faculty member at Caltech.

Ponce and his colleagues Greg Bearman, a member of the technical staff at JPL, and Elizabeth Lester, a Caltech grad student in bioengineering had been working on a technology for NASA to validate the sterility of spacecraft. One method to test for such bio- cleanliness is to measure for bacterial spores, the dormant form of bacteria which can survive environmental extremes. Those spores, when inhaled, can cause illness such as anthrax, so the researchers' measurement method for testing spacecraft also became useful for national security.

The scientists developed a "simple and robust chemical test' to determine the spore concentration in a sample. A chemical compound called dipicolinic acid is unique to bacterial spores and binds strongly to a form of the chemical element terbium. The combination emits green light when viewed under ultraviolet light.

UDT's device pops the spores, drops the terbium onto the sample and measures the intensity of the light emitted by the chemicals. The more intense the light, the more spores in the air. And the measurement is complete in about 15 minutes.

Just as the old adage warns where there's smoke, there's fire, Ponce says, "Where there's a large change in airborne bacteria spore concentration, there's an anthrax attack.'

However, he admits the device will detect other varieties of bacterial spore, not all of which lead to diseases such as anthrax. But, according to Amir Ettehadieh, UDT's director of research and development, the new device could serve as a useful front-end monitor because it is cheap, robust and automated, meaning it can continuously monitor an area without human workers.

The U.S. Postal Service is currently testing another detection system produced by Northrop Grumman, which is based on gene sequencing. Operation of those devices at the 282 main mail-processing and distribution centers around the country would cost more than $100 million each year. The U.S. General Accounting Office therefore began looking for alternative methods to decrease operating costs and found UDT's technology to be ideal, according to a report by the office.

Since the same number of "anthrax smoke detectors' could operate for a hundredth of the cost of Northrop Grumman's devices, Ettehadieh said, UDT's detectors could send out the first alert, at which point another device, not necessarily continuously-operating, could determine whether the spores were indeed threatening.

The first round of devices will sell for about $45,000 each, Ettehadieh said.

Kimm Groshong can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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