Smiths Detection: Innovative technology in biothreat detection

insights from industryWarren MinoManaging Director of BiotechnologySmiths Detection

In this interview, we spoke to Warren Mino, the Managing Director of Biotechnology for Smiths Detection, about their innovative technology and its involvement within biothreat detection.

Please can you introduce yourself, and give us some background on Smiths Detection?

My name is Warren Mino, and I am the Managing Director of Biotechnology for Smiths Detection. I am responsible for the overall operations of the biotechnology business including daily operations, administrative functions, and finances.

Smiths Detection’s mission is “making the world a safer place” and we specialize in developing technology that protects our aviation operations, ports, and borders, military personal and first responders, and critical infrastructure. We are a trusted partner to government agencies and corporations where safety and security are paramount.

How is Smiths Detection providing global coverage and achieving its goal of making the world safer, healthier, and more productive?

Our goal is simple – to provide security, peace of mind, and freedom of movement, upon which the world depends. We have over 40 years of experience protecting society from the threat and illegal passage of explosives, prohibited weapons, contraband, toxic chemicals, and narcotics.

We have over 3000 employees, with offices in 13 countries and a large network of service technicians that ensure our equipment maintains the security that our customers depend on. We have a presence in the US, Canada, Singapore, China, Japan, India, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, the UK, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the UAE.

Smiths Detection - Making the world a safer place

Smiths Detection is renowned for its biological threat detection systems. What different systems do Smiths Detection offer and how can these be used for a wide range of applications?

Smiths Detection offers a wide range of products and technologies which support our customer's safety and security mission. Smiths Detection’s bio-threat technology uses CANARY, which is a tested and proven method of pathogen threat detection, providing users with an unprecedented level of speed and sensitivity in both commercial and defense applications. Originally developed by MIT, CANARY technology allows the detection of a wide range of pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and toxins.

Our biological threat detection systems can be deployed for applications in biodefense, food safety, agriculture, and emerging disease. We offer two solutions:

  • BioFlash Biological Identifier – mobile, high sensitivity bio-threat detector capable of detecting mail room threats such as anthrax or airborne viruses like COVID-19 in minutes. Our biological detectors are easy to use, fast, and with high sensitivity rates.
  • Zephyr – allows for improved food safety testing at the point of origin helping to expedite production and reduce risk and waste.

In addition to Biological Threat Detection, we specialize in X-ray inspection, Chemical Agent Identification, Explosive Trace Detection, Radiation Detection across all of our sectors of operation, globally.

Why is biothreat detection such a crucial task in today’s society?

In light of the recent COVID pandemic, the definition of biothreat is rapidly changing. In previous years, this definition was narrowly focused on classic biothreat agents which could be created by rogue state agencies or other radical groups.

Now, these agents could include synthetic organisms made by lone individuals or, in the age of globalization, naturally occurring infectious agents.  We believe it is important to have the ability to monitor for the presence of any of these agents in order to give the appropriate agencies the intelligence and time needed to implement mitigative actions.

The threat of COVID-19, and the ongoing opening up of our society, has made its biological detection a critical health and security need. There has never been a greater need for dynamic, practical, high speed, and highly sensitive pathogen detection.

Bio Hazard

Image Credit: David Pereiras/Shutterstock.com

How do Smiths Detection make their products cost-effective, sustainable, and low-risk?

With over 40 years of experience, we have worked to ensure our products and solutions are market-leading, and therefore low-risk. We understand that reliability and trust are critical components to our customers. They need our product and solutions to operate in extreme and high-stress conditions, where situational awareness can save lives and safeguard society.

For BioFlash, a significant amount of engineering design was put into our platform's checks and verifications. The BioDiscs have positive and negative controls integrated into each consumable to assure the capabilities of the biosensors to perform properly. Each consumable is uniquely barcoded for tractability.

The BioFlash device itself has pressure, temperature, light, and other real-time sensors built into the design to verify the correct internal operation of the device, so that when a pathogen detection/identification test is performed, the end-user can have confidence in the result.

We have both theoretical and 10 years of in-field usage false positive rates that are well below 0.05% (a significantly low percentage for platforms of this nature). Electrical components and motors were selected for longevity and robustness, and are put through stress tests and burn-in periods to assure reliability in our customer's hands - our first-sale device is still operating on a daily basis after 10 years in the field.

Tell us about BioFlash, how it works, and its capabilities.

The BioFlash Biological Identifier is a bio-aerosol collection and identification system. It uses CANARY technology along with proprietary aerosol collection techniques to provide a low-risk, cost-effective biological sampling and identification solution for environmental monitoring. BioFlash works by collecting and analyzing air samples using sensitive, specific, and rapid detection technology to identify the presence of dangerous pathogens on-site without the need to involve a laboratory.

The BioFlash operates using BioDisk consumables that contain genetically engineered biosensors, expressing both the agent-specific antibodies and the calcium-sensitive bioluminescent molecules that are needed to produce light emissions.

Each BioDisk contains a total of sixteen cuvettes. Twelve cuvettes have different agent-specific biosensors in specific cuvettes. We have an additional dedicated positive and additional dedicated negative control cuvette. The remaining two cuvettes are empty so that samples can be brought back to a lab for further analysis. This allows more than one agent of interest to be detected and identified.

The BioFlash is capable of being used in a variety of different environments, for example, hospitals, schools, offices, and airports. We have connected the BioFlash to a portable battery and we can transport the BioFlash from room to room to sample and test the air for SARS-CoV-2 and other biothreats.

The BioFlash is routinely used in mail screening applications, where we can rapidly screen bulk mail for the presence of ricin, anthrax, and other biothreat agents of concern. We can easily change the biosensors in the device as threats emerge, meaning customers can use the same equipment and test for other threats as they emerge.

What makes BioFlash such a universal tool?

BioFlash is portable, easy to use and clean, and relatively low cost. It has a compact and lightweight design and an extremely low false alarm rate. The BioFlash can produce results in under three minutes onsite.

The BioFlash has the ability to screen for a range of aerosolized threats in different configurations. The underlying technology, CANARY, provides the ability to create biosensors for specific agents of concern – the most recent example being our development of a SARS-CoV-2 biosensor with the onset of the pandemic. We can add the ability to identify new pathogens of concern to the same instrument providing flexibility and applicability to a range of markets and use cases including naturally occurring viruses and bacteria or biowarfare agents intentionally created and disseminated.

The instrument is an air collection device so it can be configured to perform that air collection function in different scenarios creating universal applications for biological detection and identification. It can be used to screen mail for dangerous biologicals or just pull an air sample from the ambient air to identify the presence of a virus-like SARS-CoV-2, or it can be networked into a larger system for more constant monitoring.

How was BioFlash used in universities to stop the spread of COVID-19?

Smiths Detection began a collaborative pilot project with the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), to offer the onsite testing capability for real-world use, aiming to help their Environmental Safety and Health (ESH) team with COVID-19 mitigation strategies on campus. One early testing success came when a student working in a research facility tested positive for COVID-19 on a diagnostic test.

The ESH team used the BioFlash to test the facility’s air in three locations and received no positive result, confirming the space was safe to re-enter for students and staff, who could be comfortable in the knowledge that the area was COVID-free. Environmental swabs were used in the study as a confirmatory method to determine the virus was, indeed, present in rooms

Separately, in a collaborative effort with the Sports Medicine Department, an aerosol test conducted in a locker room following a team’s practice resulted in a positive detection on the BioFlash. As the result of the positive environmental test, UMBC was immediately able to have the team and staff tested for COVID and found three individuals were positive for COVID. These two real-world applications of the BioFlash demonstrate how the system can be used to both confirm the safety of a site and to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

In this case, it was possible to immediately identify and assist the COVID-positive individuals, preventing further potential transmissions among the team and staff and at the team’s future athletic competitions.

BioFlash and COVID-19

How could BioFlash be used to tackle emerging variants of COVID-19?

As the viral structure of what the BioFlash is detecting is unchanging, the BioFlash is able to detect COVID-19 in all the current – and we believe future – variations.

Why is the detection of emerging variants such an important step in the journey to ending the COVID-19 pandemic, and what part will Smiths Detection play in this?

As the virus continues to infect the population, it could acquire mutations that make it more infective or resistant to countermeasures such as vaccines or therapeutic agents.  It is important to have robust detection technologies capable of detecting these variants even though they may have acquired novel mutations.  Smiths Detection has worked hard to develop such a technology in order for our customers to confidently monitor for the presence of this deadly virus.

Technology is available to support and enhance mitigation strategies cost-effectively and efficiently. The more quickly we can deploy complementary virus mitigation techniques, the quicker we can get back to normal life.

How will Smiths Detection continue to provide game-changing technologies in future world crises?

Our mission to safeguard the world drives our innovation. We continually invest in ourselves to develop new technology and push the boundaries of what is achievable, we research the latest technological advancements at Universities, Labs, and the market, and we stay up to date on emerging threats and position ourselves as a leader in the industry and a trusted partner for security technology.

We will continue to prioritize safety and the well-being of society. We will continue to partner with governments, agencies, and companies to identify security risks and create solutions to meet those needs. We will self-fund development projects to prepare for next-generation detection needs and focus on enhancing situation awareness for our customers.

What is the next step for Smiths Detection?

Bio threats are always evolving – whether that be an intentional or accidental bio threat release of naturally occurring biothreats such as SARS-CoV-2.  Unfortunately, we know there will be a SARS-CoV-3, we just don’t know when and where it will originate. Our current research and development allow us to respond quickly to emerging threats and continually innovate on bio-threat detection and identification technologies.

Additionally, all of the typical ‘next steps’ in any technology-based business are just as applicable to Smiths Detection – reducing platform costs, decreasing the size and weight of our instruments, and making them easier to use whenever and wherever in the world they are needed.

The end goal has already been visualized for us in the mythical Star Trek Tricorder - a multifunction hand-held device that performs sensor environment scans, data recording, and data analysis, in a unit about the size of a cell phone. While that may be a century or more in the future, we feel that we can play a significant role in advancing that path.

Where can readers find more information?

About Warren Mino

As the Managing Director of biotechnology for Smiths Detection, Warren Mino is responsible for running all facets of the biotechnology business. Warren has a proven track record and over 10 years of experience driving sales growth and developing new technologies in the Safety and Security industry. Smiths Detection is a world leader in the application of technologies to provide safety and security in aviation, ports & borders, infrastructure, and military markets.Warren Mino

Before his Managing Director role, Warren has held roles in Product Management and Business Development with Smiths Detection. He was responsible for growing Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry and Radiation Detection businesses, managing a team of Product Managers, and developing Market Strategy for the Urban Security Business Line. He was also the Senior Scientist and Analytical Research Manager at 1st Detect, a miniaturized mass spectrometry start-up in Houston, TX.

Warren earned his Doctorate in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Florida and his Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry from the University of Connecticut.

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