Detection of Biological Agents in the Field: Then and Now

By Katelyn Smith

Biology is an ever-changing, growing, and evolving field. To increase our defenses against biological agents in natural occurrences, accidental occurrences, and deliberate occurrences. At the ASM Biothreats Conference this year, there was a panel session organized to hear multiple experts’ commentary on biological agent detection in the field over the years.  Mediated by Dr. Kenneth B. Yeh, a senior science advisor at MRIGlobal, the panel of members were able to comment and answer questions, speaking about previous experiences of their own, as well as some of the research that they do.

To start off the session, the panelists discussed a comparison of Real-Time qPCR and Sequencing, the roles they have played overtime in the biological field, as well as changes in the biodefense field in the last few decades.  More than 20 years ago, two major platforms were yielded in the Department of Defense: a real-time PCR system and a current generation diagnostic system.   Matt Scullion, the vice president of sales and marketing at BioFire Defense, described a little about the evolution he has seen throughout his time working in the field.  He explained that in the early 2000s, two major changes occurred- there was more work done in coordination with the special forces than before and smaller systems were developed for easier usage in the field.  Two major issues he commented on were that there needed to be a much greater turnaround time than ever before, and that there was difficulty in finding microbiologists in the early 21stcentury.  Matt explained that there was not a huge pull towards microbiologist positions- it wasn’t a “sexy” field, as he put it.  In the 2010s, he explained that there were more integrated platforms that moved farther away from just Department of Defense needs, and started integrating clinical diagnosis needs as well.  This included trying to shift the historical paradigm, of clinicals being sent to labs and not receiving results for 24 hours, to faster turnaround times and improving syndromic based diagnostics.

Another question that was opened up to the panel was what the challenges of sequencing look like at this point in time.  Matt explained that currently, sequencing takes a long time, though there are some brilliant machines out there.  He said the major issue with sequencing is that “ease of use isn’t there yet, turnaround time isn’t there yet”.  Dr. Joe Russell, a senior scientist at MRIGlobal, said that “the mess [that sequencing is] is reflective of the mess that biology is” and that “we want to put everything in their categorical boxes, but evolution doesn’t care about those boxes”.  There is a significant amount of data that comes out of sequencing, but the more sequencing can be targeted and the faster it gets, the more efficient sequencing will be, especially in the bioinformatics and biodefense fields.

As we can see based on the commentaries in this session, there are issues in biological technologies that are still evolving.  Over the years, more has been learned and biotech has evolved, but there is still much more room for growth in the forward direction. The stronger biology gets with Real-Time PCR and Sequencing, the better detection there will be for diagnostics and detection of biological agents.

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