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Lab Plans Detector that Could Aid First Responders

Oct. 1--A portable biotoxin detector is in the works at Sandia/California National Laboratories that could give emergency responders vital information within minutes about a person's exposure.

The goal of the $3.2-million project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is to create a user-friendly device weighing about 7 pounds that can test a person's blood for specific biotoxins at the scene of an accident or terrorist attack.

"National security used to be defending against nuclear weapons and things like that," said Sandia lab chemical engineer Anup Singh. "Now the scenario has changed a lot, and that means defending against chemical and biological terrorism."

Singh hopes to have a prototype of the device that can test blood for multiple biotoxins, such as botulinum toxin and shiga toxins, ready to be assessed by the Food and Drug Administration within five years.

The only expertise that a user will need is the ability to draw blood.

"The amount of blood we will need is what you'd get from a finger prick," Singh said. "Once the blood is drawn, anyone could use the device."

Singh envisions a device that can either display the results on its own screen or connect to a computer through a USB port. Screening for one or two toxins may take less than five minutes, while multiple toxins might take around 10 minutes.

Currently, responders such as paramedics and firemen can treat symptoms in the field, but have to get the blood samples to a lab for analysis, which typically takes hours. With the portable device, emergency personnel could rapidly determine if a person has been exposed and what the level of exposure is. This could help them choose the best course of action, whether that is treating symptoms in the field or having the patient transported to a medical facility.

"Our goal is to have this available wherever responders are going to be," Singh said.

Sandia is working with the University of Massachusetts, which will provide blood samples from mice that have been exposed to different biotoxins to test different analytical methods.

Bio-Rad Laboratories, which has headquarters in Hercules, will help package the device for production and marketing.

The project will build on work in progress at Sandia on a device that could allow dentists to quickly test patients' saliva for gum disease in the office.

The biotoxin detector will prepare the blood sample automatically and test it for antibodies to whichever toxins it has been designed for. The biggest challenges will be finding good, commercially available antibodies to work with, and squeezing everything into a small, user-friendly package.

"That's a huge systems engineering challenge," he said.

Initially, the Sandia scientists will target four or five toxins, but the methods they develop will be easily applied to other toxins, or to markers for other problems or diseases.

"This can easily be extended to looking for cancer markers," Singh said.

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