Researchers at UC Davis and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working together to develop a highly sensitive, portable method of detecting bioterror agents like anthrax and plague.
Their method uses "Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields" (CANARY) cells, which are immune-system cells engineered to contain a fluorescent protein naturally found in jellyfish. CANARY cells have the immune system's ability to detect specific disease-causing agents, lighting up when they recognize a pathogen.
Developed at MIT in 2003, CANARY cells are faster and more sensitive than the lab techniques now used to identify dangerous germs. But right now, CANARY cells must be maintained in special laboratory conditions to keep them from spoiling.
That's where the UC Davis Center for Biostabilization comes in. UC Davis researchers are figuring out how to preserve CANARY cells using dehydration. Ann Oliver, associate research scientist at the center, is trying to produce packets of dehydrated CANARY cells that can be stored and transported at room temperature, then rehydrated before use. The packets could be taken anywhere bioterror agents might be found.
Scientists at the center, directed by John Crowe, professor of molecular and cellular biology, and Fern Tablin, professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, previously invented a way to dehydrate human platelet cells that help blood clot. Their knowledge of platelets is helping them handle the larger, more fragile CANARY cells.
Before drying, Oliver's team loads CANARY cells with trehalose, a sugar found in organisms that naturally withstand dehydration. Trehalose replaces the water molecules that normally stabilize structures in the cell. Then the cells are air- or vacuum-dried.
"The more water you remove, the fewer cells survive," said Oliver. "So we're aiming for a balance between high viability and low water content."
So far, Oliver's team has succeeded in preserving CANARY cells for up to four days. "Now, we need to work out the best conditions to protect these cells during storage," Oliver said. She expects that dehydrated CANARY cells will be on the market within a few years.