Rapid detection of airborne toxins combats bioterrorism

Airborne biological agents can be easily detected and analysed with the aid of a portable device developed by an EU-funded consortium. The system will facilitate a rapid and potentially life-saving response in the case of bioterrorism or an accidental release from a laboratory.

Currently, the use of biological agents and viruses by terrorists is an ever-present threat. The number of people affected by such an attack and the degree to which they would be affected depends on a number of factors. These include the choice of agent used in such an attack, its concentration and the time it has to act before countermeasures are taken.

In response to this threat, scientists developed a portable system for use as an immediate alarm system for airborne biological agents, viruses and toxins in the project BIO-PROTECT (Ionisation-based detector of airborne bio-agents, viruses and toxins for fast-alert and identification). The system detects airborne particles containing or released by living organisms, followed by identification of contents via ionisation and spectral analysis.

Biodetection relies on a miniaturised gas chromatograph-ion mobility spectrometry (GC-IMS) system capable of identifying and separating very small amounts of a wide range of organic molecules. The GC-IMS was adapted to separate all types of bio-agents of interest from the aerosol. A combined pre-concentration and pyrolysis unit was also developed, capable of taking a wet sample and preparing it for use with the GC-IMS.

The consortium successfully demonstrated the ability of the coupled pyrolysis-IMS system to deliver reproducible spectra from bio-agent samples in the collector. Self-learning pattern analysis software reproducibly distinguished hazards through the comparison of spectra.

Benefits for users include being able to detect and identify biological agents with a single device and distinguish bacteria, viruses and toxins. This provides a fast and reliable result on which to base initial countermeasures. In addition, no reagents are needed, thereby reducing the cost of the device, which can support an easily upgradeable database.

BIO-PROTECT provides security personnel with a reliable tool for taking fast, effective action when confronted with a biological threat. It is not intended to replace the need for hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, but rather to foster fast bio-safety actions until trained personnel arrive or can provide detailed instructions based on the evaluation of data via hardwire or an internet link. It can thus mobilise the public and minimise panic, thereby saving lives.

last modification: 2016-03-25

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