Homeland Security

Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS)

BASIS was the manual predecessor to APDS.

Shaped like a mailbox on wheels, it's been called a bioterrorism "smoke detector." It can be found in transportation hubs such as airports and subways. Formally known as the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System, or APDS, this latest tool in the war on bioterrorism was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to continuously sniff the air for airborne pathogens and toxins such as anthrax or plague.

The APDS is the modern day equivalent of the canaries miners took underground with them to test for deadly carbon dioxide gas. But this canary can test for numerous bacteria, viruses, and toxins simultaneously, report results every hour, and confirm positive samples and guard against false positive results by using two different tests. The fully automated system collects and prepares air samples around the clock, does the analysis, and interprets the results. It requires no servicing or human intervention for an entire week.

Unlike its feathered counterpart, when an APDS unit encounters something deadly in the air, that's when it begins singing, quietly. The APDS unit transmits a silent alert and sends detailed data to public health authorities, who can order evacuation and begin treatment of anyone exposed to toxic or biological agents. It is the latest in a series of biodefense detectors developed at DOE/NNSA national laboratories.

The manual predecessor to APDS, called BASIS (for Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System), was developed jointly by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. That system was modified to become BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security's biological urban monitoring program. A related laboratory instrument, the Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer (HANAA), was first tested successfully at LLNL in September 1997.

Successful partnering with private industry has been a key factor in the rapid advancement and deployment of biodefense instruments such as these. The APDS technology has been licensed and is currently undergoing commercialization.

One of the methods a terrorist might use to disperse a biowarfare agent is through an aerosol attack. In fact, the anthrax mail room release in 2001 and the ricin release in 2004 involved relatively small amounts of deadly material. Countering such threats in an effective manner requires an automated system that continuously monitors the air, quickly analyzes samples, and identifies a wide range of agents without false positives.

APDS is designed to meet that need. It monitors the air for the three types of biological threat agents: bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Because it operates continuously, the system can detect low concentrations of bioagents that might go undetected by a system that is triggered only when the overall number of particles in the air is high. APDS collects aerosol samples, prepares them for analysis, and tests for multiple biological agents simultaneously. This automation reduces the cost and staffing that would be required to manually analyze samples.

The current system is configured to test simultaneously for 11 agents and can be expanded to 100 agents without a change in instrumentation. Given the number of pathogens potentially available to terrorists, the ability to detect and analyze large numbers is critical. APDS also identifies particles within 1 hour-faster than comparable systems, which can take 4 to 20 hours. Having results promptly is crucial for emergency-response efforts, as is being certain that the results are real

In September 2003, APDS passed a series of pathogen exposure tests at a high-containment laboratory at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. In these trials, the system clearly demonstrated that it could detect real pathogens and confirm the identifications with a fully automated second assay method. APDS units were also deployed at the Albuquerque Airport in New Mexico and at a Washington, DC, Metro station, where they provided continuous monitoring for up to seven days, unattended.

The system can be adapted for situations where environmental or clinical pathogens require monitoring. For example, APDS could test for mold or fungal spores in buildings or for the airborne spread of contagious materials in hospitals. It also could identify disease outbreaks in livestock transport centers or feedlots.

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