Innovations in Biothreat Detection

By Joseph DeFranco

On 30 January 2020, Drs. David Walsh  from MIT Lincoln Lab, Timothy M. Reed from the 20th CBRNE CARA Lab, and Phillip M. Mach from the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, presented on their team’s innovations in biological threat agent detection.

Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection.

Dr. Walsh’s team works on biothreat detection research to overcome both the technical challenges (e.g., limits of detection) and operational challenges (e.g., availability of the device). These obstacles are compounded by the real-world environments in which these devices must be deployed versus the more controlled environments often found in hospitals or research institutions. Dr. Walsh’s team strives to create the “ideal” biosensor that would be sensitive to specific species, quick, reliable, and adaptable to environmental parameters. They are currently testing a rapid, autonomous device that performs sample collection, sample preparation, and biological identification.  A microcompactor condenses the surrounding air toward an impaction surface that collects the aerosols in the environment. Then, the device spins the raw sample from the impaction surface into a testable sample. Finally, the purified sample is amplified and analyzed by a relatively new method of detection called Extreme PCR (xPCR). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that scientists use to increase the amount of DNA from a sample, a process that usually takes an hour or longer. PCR requires repetitive heating and cooling to denature the original DNA strands, anneal the primer to the target sequence, and synthesize new DNA strands. xPCR uses state-of-the-art technology to accelerate the heating and cooling aspects of the assay and can detect the presence of DNA within minutes.

Dr. Reed is part of the CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity (CARA) Laboratory, a subordinate unit of the 20th CBRNE Command, and he presented some of their recent innovations. Since its inception in 2007, the CARA Lab has incorporated or developed increasingly mobile instruments, adapted to reagent requirements (e.g., reduced cold chain and hazmat uses), and reduced the amount of computation needed for their laboratory responsibilities. For example, one of their assets is the Heavy Mobile Expeditionary Lab (HMEL), which is a transportable laboratory that “has everything a brick and mortar lab would have.” The HMEL team is responsible for analyzing CBRNE samples downrange and monitoring the use of chemical and biological agents. Recently, the CARA Lab has implemented some novel technologies to enhance their versatile capabilities: the MinION Nanopore Technologies sequencer and the Pan-Genomics for Infectious agents, PanGIA. MinION is a real-time device that identifies the DNA or RNA of an agent of interest. It is portable, low cost, and reduces cold chain requirements, all of which are attractive features for the CARA Lab. PanGIA is a sample-to-sequencing system that streamlines the pathogen detection process, and requires minimal lab footprint, no internet, and is suitable for remote field stations like the back of a van. These technologies have been tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground and employed at Camp Humphreys.

Dr. Mach is a Principle Investigator in the Biological Automated Collector/Detector for Expeditionary Reconnaissance (BioACER Project). His team develops equipment that performs unmanned, automated, and rapid biothreat detection. The US military hopes that an operator can deploy the BioACER device from an unmanned aerial vehicle, then the device will automatically collect air samples, conduct rapid sample preparation, and ultimately perform biological agent identification. Unsurprisingly, their project encountered several challenges. Of note, the swift yet graceful landing of the device (i.e., not damaging any of the biosensor equipment) has proven to be an obstacle. The team has experimented with several designs, including a parachute, ram-air intakes, and different types of rotors; however, the most innovative and imaginative design was a device modeled after the maple seed pods.

In 2018, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that they intend to replace the (arguably) outdated BioWatch Program. Unfortunately,, its assumed replacement, Biodetection 21, or BD21, is already receiving criticism. Hopefully, these technologies and projects provide optimism to scientists, security personnel, and policymakers who hope to possess an effective, reliable, and rapid biothreat detection device not only for military applications but for civilian environments.

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