TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 16, 2004) - University of South Florida microbiologists have developed tests that can rapidly identify anthrax and smallpox. Used in the field in the event of a suspected bioterror attack, positive rapid testing could prevent disease spread while negative results could prevent panic over fears that an anthrax or smallpox attack has occurred. Studies reporting the USF findings were recently published in the Journal of Microbiological Methods (59;127-130) and in Biosensors & Bioelectronics (20;322-327).
"After the bioterrorism anthrax mailings of 2001 and the recognition that terrorists could weaponize smallpox, it became increasingly important to develop rapid testing to confirm attacks and initiate public health efforts, or allay public fears if no attacks had occurred," said Daniel Lim, a USF microbiologist associated with the USF Center for Biological Defense (http://www.bt.usf.edu). "Using throat swab samples seeded with Vaccinia virus, a surrogate of smallpox, and a fiber-optic biosensor, we found we could detect the virus in 20 minutes. We also found we could detect moderate concentrations of anthrax in less than an hour directly from powder samples with no false positives with the same biosensor."
Rapid detection of potential acts of bioterror is part of the brave new world in the war on terror ushered in by the development of tests tuned to detect small amounts of dangerous material quickly using a portable biosensor called the RAPTOR.
According to USF microbiologist Kim Donaldson, co-author of the smallpox detection paper, throat swabs of potentially smallpox-infected victims could be carried out by public health personnel on a large number of people and vaccination could be offered to those testing positive within four days of exposure.
"This could provide some protection from the disease and offer significant protection from a fatal outcome," said Donaldson.
A similar procedure with the RAPTOR could quickly identify an anthrax attack, said Bryan Tims, co-author of the anthrax paper and a member of Lim's research team.
"After the anthrax spore mailing in 2001, public health officials were overwhelmed by samples of unidentified white powder," recalled Tims. "In this study we demonstrated the ability of a fiber-optic biosensor to detect anthrax in less than an hour and quickly separate the real threat from the hoax."
USF researcher and co-author of the smallpox study, Marianne Kramer, explained that smallpox is likely to be spread through an aerosol people inhale and then spread to others.
"Smallpox was essentially eliminated in the late 1970s," said Kramer. "But the virus still exists. With today's lack of smallpox vaccinations, even a relatively small outbreak created by terrorists could easily spread throughout the world. Rapid testing within the 20 minute capability of the biosensors and the RAPTOR may be our best front line weapon."
Since the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax attacks shortly thereafter, scientists at the USF Center for Biological Defense have made major strides in the war against bioterror through the development of rapid bioassays and the development of computer software that can quickly assess symptom reporting on a large scale to determine if a biological attack has occurred.
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