Bio threat detection review

CarolinaFireJournal - Matt Scullion and Lou Banks
Matt Scullion and Lou Banks
10/18/2009 -

There are a variety of technologies and techniques for detecting and identifying biologics, each with its advantages and disadvantages. All of these techniques have been derived from traditional laboratory practices and have evolved at different levels for use in the field by hazmat and first responders. Using a multi-tier approach and capitalizing on multiple technologies can bolster confidence in incident response and management. It is logical that the application of multiple techniques would add to the chances of a better response to an incident, but there is a cost associated that can be measured in training and logistics. Understanding the different classes of biologic detection technologies, their advantages, disadvantages, and logistics requirements can help hazmat and first responders better prepare for and frame the efficacy of their response.


The following paragraphs highlight the more common techniques for biologic detection. Many of these techniques, especially the molecular-based identification techniques, have successfully been transferred from the lab to the field and the military has demonstrated their utility. Others are almost exclusive to higher complexity fixed labs, but are mentioned for perspective in terms of domestic public health response and the time required for their use. It is often true that “you get what you pay for ”in biodetection, but a tiered practical approach to the problem can frame the level of your response to the size of your budget.

Classes of Biodetection

Nonspecific identification–molecular
This class of testing generally characterizes a sample as biological and distinguishes it from ordinary substances such as sugar, drywall dust, or cornstarch that are frequently used in white powder hoaxes. It is often used as a first “quick and dirty ”screen to triage a suspicious powder or liquid and determine if more extensive testing is necessary. The test tends to be inexpensive, easy to use, and fast. Examples include the BioCheckâ„¢ Powder Screen (20/20 BioResponse), which tests for the presence of protein, and HazMatIDâ„¢ (Smiths Detection), which utilizes Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) to identify the protein signature of an unknown biologic. Antibody based– molecular This category can determine the specific pathogen, such as Anthrax or Ricin, through an antibody-protein binding reaction coupled with a fluorescent or visual reporting mechanism. These tests range from common hand-held assays (HHAs) to complex readers. The instruments are higher in sensitivity and are more specific than the previously mentioned class of nonspecific test methods. Hand-held assay style tests have been used by military and first responders since the early 1990s, are single use, and are capable of identifying a wide selection of different BioThreat agents. They range in cost from tens of dollars for a single manually-read ticket to many thousands of dollars for systems with complex readers and wet chemistry. Time-to-results for hand-held assays is usually between 5 and 15 minutes and requires minimal training. Specific products include BioThreat Alert® (Tetracore) and Bio-Detectâ„¢ (Alexeter Technologies) hand-held assays and BIOSENSORâ„¢ 2200R (MSA) and RAMP® (Response Biomedical Corporation) bio-detection systems. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) - molecular This class of testing is more specific in identifying harmful biologics by amplifying specific segments of genes for the suspected pathogen. PCR is the most sensitive and reliable of the current molecular methods and can give high quality results in 30 minutes. These systems require an instrument and chemistry and have evolved from ruggedized lab systems requiring trained lab technicians for operation to field-friendly, battery-powered systems easily used by first responders. These systems have been fielded by military groups since the late 1990s and have recently become available to hazmat and first responders. PCR instruments offer increased capabilities with their number of available tests for bio threat agents, reliability and specificity. The procurement of these systems requires consideration, but is not outside the scope of most budgets or grants. Specific products include R.A.P.I.D.® (Idaho Technology) mobile lab system, RAZOR® (Idaho Technology) and Bio-Seeqâ„¢PLUS (Smiths Detection) field systems.

The oldest technique mentioned in this review, it is often used as a quick check on a white powder that has been identified as a biologic to identify shapes of certain BioThreat bacteria. These systems range in cost and need only a few minutes for testing (assuming there is no staining), but require frequent and detailed training and are not conducive to transport. These systems have been fielded and do supply another piece of information in a BioThreat response, although few groups use them because of their noted difficulties for the amount of information gained. Manufacturers include Nikon and Zeiss.

This technique is considered the Gold Standard and requires the organism to be grown on selective media (Petri dishes and tubes). Culture is generally performed by LRN labs for definitive confirmation of white powders. It is performed only in permanent labs by highly trained lab technicians and requires specialized equipment and 24 hours to multiple days to perform. This technique is often confirmed by antibody or PCR tests as the culture media is not always as selective to the species level.

Future systems
There is always a look to the future with all systems. Many of the future biological identification systems in development integrate many of the existing labor intensive portions of the molecular systems and automate them (FilmArray, Idaho Technology). Other techniques, like chip-based systems, have shown promise in the lab, but have been difficult to transfer to the field environment. Still others involve mass spectrometry and are still not ready or cost-effective for field implementation.

Effective response
The key to an effective response is not always having every tool in the biological identification universe. Many groups suffer from too much equipment and not enough personnel who can operate it, or do not have someone in the department who can interpret the data. Having knowledge of the technologies for detection and identification and how they fit into your CBRNe response procedure is as important as the number of toys in your box. Using a multiple-layer approach will increase the confidence level of your response, but this must be measured against the logistics, training, and budget restraints of your organization.

Matt Scullion has a BS degree in biology and 10 years of basic science and R&D experience. During his history with Idaho Tech, he has been an R&D Scientist, Sales Manager, Customer Support and Training specialist, and Marketing Manager for Applied systems. Scullion gained fi rst hand experience during the anthrax attacks of 2001 performing, training, and advising biodetection efforts in NYC and Washington DC. He has trained over 600 users in both the civilian and military sectors, tested systems with US and international partners, and aided in Idaho Tech’s detection systems development. Scullion is currently the business development manager at Idaho Technology Incorporated and is responsible for program development, new technologies and market development for ITI. Lou Banks is the Marketing Manager for BioDefense at Idaho Technology. He has a MBA in marketing technology as well as a BS in molecular biology with his extensive lab experience working with PCR and DNA sequencing at in the Human Genome Center at the University of Utah.
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