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DOD tests 'revolutionary' biological warfare detection device

by Elaine Wilson
Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office

5/19/2005 - FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (AFPN) -- Department of Defense specialists are testing a cutting-edge technology so revolutionary military scientists said it will change the face of biological warfare.

The joint biological agent identification and diagnostic system, a 40-pound device small enough to slip into a rucksack, is designed to vastly increase the speed and accuracy of biological warfare agent detection.

“(The device) will fill a vital role in providing accurate, rapid identification capability for detecting a threat or an attack,” said Donna Boston, program manager for the new system.

Before the system, it took the military two to four days in a microbiology laboratory to accurately identify a biological warfare agent.

The system can do it on the spot in 40 minutes.

“With rapid identification of a threat, we can be armed with information to fight bioterrorism,” Ms. Boston said. “It offers so many advantages. The quicker we can identify an agent, the quicker a doctor can make an accurate diagnosis and commanders can start taking action.”

The joint program executive office for chemical and biological defense in Falls Church, Va., found the technology in 2002 while seeking a quicker way to detect biological warfare agents in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and later anthrax scares. Idaho Technology, Inc., from Salt Lake City, stepped forward with the system, the latest in biological warfare technology.

The device looks deceptively simple, just a laptop connected to an analyzer. Lab technicians load suspect samples into a carousel within the analyzer where they are “cooked and cooled” repeatedly so strands of DNA break apart and reform to make copies of themselves. Each time heating and cooling occur, more DNA copies are formed, which takes something from undetectable to identifiable.

The device can simultaneously identify up to 10 different biological warfare agents in a given sample, including smallpox, anthrax, plague and encephalitis.

“If something is there that threatens the health of our military force, you will be able to detect it much sooner,” said Army Maj. Harry Whitlock II, a combat developer at the Army medical department center and school. “This is the ‘new’ gold standard. Other rapid diagnostic methods, like handheld assays, don’t have nearly the same sensitivity.”

The system’s sensitivity, or ability to accurately identify specimens containing an agent, is averaging at least 85 percent per test, and its specificity, or accuracy in pinpointing the percentage of specimens without an agent, has averaged at least 90 percent.

The result is a higher confidence in the accuracy of information for military leaders.

“Everyone in the scientific community is excited because (the device) allows detection of a very minute level and commanders are excited because the troops will be better protected,” Major Whitlock said.

The system’s size allows the device to travel with servicemembers into war, eliminating the need to send samples to a laboratory stateside, which delays diagnosis and treatment of affected people. DOD began a joint-service testing of the device in 2003 to ensure the civilian-made system could be as effective in war as in a stateside lab.

“(The system) has been through a long series of developmental tests,” Ms. Boston said. “Government labs went through thousands of samples of biological warfare organisms. The data is still being evaluated, but the system and test assay kits have performed very well so far.”

The latest was a two-week operational test at Brooks City-Base, Texas, which wrapped up May 18. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps lab technicians and program developers traveled to San Antonio to make sure the device met DOD specifications. The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., took the lead on the exercise, while the Army Medical Department provided ongoing training and technical assistance.

Army Chemical Corps personnel collected irradiated or “dead” samples from the field and delivered them to lab technicians from the Army’s 1st and 9th Area Medical Laboratories from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The technicians set up shop in portable shelters, which can be packed up and shipped worldwide, then extracted a test sample for analysis from environmental, food and clinical specimens such as blood and sputum.

“This was the first major joint service test (for this equipment),” Ms. Boston said. “It took more than a year of constant planning to get to this point. We’re working as fast as we can to get this technology out there quickly.”

After validation by a joint service data authentication group, the operational test results will be forwarded to the joint program executive office for chemical and biological defense for a final green light. If approved, the system will enter full-rate production in September and DOD will distribute 450 systems throughout the services over the next three years.

In the meantime, Idaho Technology will seek Food and Drug Administration approval, something that will help launch the system into civilian and military fixed and deployable medical facilities as a diagnostic tool, and into DOD veterinary food labs for testing of food and water supplies.

The modifiable system will continue to evolve over the next several years. The next step is the addition of toxin detection this summer, and later, development and testing of a hand-held version, Ms. Boston said.

“(The system) is a reliable, well-tested technology that will have a huge impact on military and civilian sectors,” she said. “It’s sad to think we live in a world where biothreats are a reality, but it’s better to be prepared and have answers; (it) will ensure we have the right ones.”

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