Faster way developed to detect bioterror threats

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 10, 2012 09:40 hrs

Washington, Dec 10 (IANS) American scientists have developed a faster, cheaper route to detect extreme bioterror threats, such as those from botulinum neurotoxins - 100 billion times more toxic than cyanide.

"Using crude extracts from E.coli - the workhorse bacterium of the biotechnology laboratory - the new route bypasses the need for purification and complex equipment, enabling screening to be performed in under an hour," said Andrew Hayhurst, Texas Biomedical Research Institute virologist, who led the research.

Botulinum neurotoxins and Ebolavirus are among a handful of threats now categorized as tier 1 agents, presenting the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with the most significant potential for mass casualties or devastating effects to the economy, critical infrastructure or public confidence.

Normally, he said, such screening requires sophisticated costly equipment to purify and analyze the affinity reagents. Such analysis becomes a huge burden when hundreds of reagents need to be checked and can take weeks to months, according to the journal Scientific Reports.

"We need an inexpensive route to screen libraries of affinity reagents. It had to be simple and self-contained as we eventually needed it to work in the space-suit lab or hot zone," said Hayhurst, according to a Texas Biomedical statement.

His surprisingly simple scheme allows scientists to make stop-gap tests to any given biological threat in a matter of days, with the screening step completed in an hour. The goal now is to speed up the entire process to work within a single day.

Hayhurst initially developed the pipeline using llama antibodies as the affinity reagents to botulinum neurotoxins, known as the world's most poisonous poisons - 100 billion times more toxic than cyanide and handled in a specialized biosafety cabinet at biosafety level 2.

Satisfied that the system was working, he then took it into the biosafety level 4 lab with his assistant, Laura Jo Sherwood, and they generated a stop-gap test for Ebolavirus Zaire in days. This virus has been shown to be 95 percent lethal in outbreak settings and with no vaccine or therapeutic it is a risk to the U.S. through importation.

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