Anthrax detection in hours—not days

UC IRVINE (US)—Anthrax can kill a person in days, yet current detection tests require at least 24 hours to produce results—a sometimes fatal delay. A prototype system may end the holdup by identifying anthrax in about an hour.

Mary Amasia, a chemical engineering doctoral student at the University of California at Irvine, is developing the system that uses CD-sized discs to separate blood or mucus samples and break down their cells, allowing public health officials to confirm whether or not anthrax DNA is present. Although far from complete, the device could become a portable diagnostic tool for almost any microbial or viral infection.

“Finding engineering solutions for medical issues matters most to me,” says Amasia. “I want to be part of the effort to make health care more affordable and more accessible in diverse settings.”

In testing the prototype, Amasia employs a noninfectious surrogate form of the anthrax bacterium. The chemicals she uses for DNA detection are activated by both anthrax and its surrogate. Different chemicals, she says, would repurpose the device for other microbes or viruses.

“We’re getting good results, and we’ve taken big steps,” Amasia says. “We’ve shown that the detection method and hardware are viable.”

She would like to see the prototype further developed into a portable product that Third World clinics could use to detect infectious diseases.

“There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome,” she says. “But it is a dream.”

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