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Early Warnings for Bioterror Threats

John Skardon's wife and daughter suffer from asthma, which can be exacerbated by dust or pollen. So to keep track of the air quality in his home, Skardon invented a device the size of a smoke detector that continually sniffs the air for excess moisture or dirt. In 1999, he founded AirAdvice in Portland, Ore., which sells the device and a related service -- e-mail or fax alerts and online reports on air quality -- to 1,000 individual and corporate customers. Since last September 11, AirAdvice has also been working with experts designing ways to fight bioterrorism.

It turns out that AirAdvice's data is highly revealing. Statisticians at the Energy Dept.'s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. -- which does research on everything from national security to environmental science -- analyze the data that AirAdvice collects from homes via phone lines connected to its gizmos. With this information, they can determine whether homeowners are in -- or if a family member has been smoking (beware, you rebellious teens!).

By analyzing air patterns, they can tell if the family dog is panting in the living room or if an egg just exploded in the microwave, says Barbara Seiders, manager of the lab's chemical and biological defense program. If all the occupants stay home on a workday, that could indicate a problem -- carbon monoxide poisoning, perhaps, or even a bio-attack, she says -- and prompt a call for help.

ROLLING BANDWAGON. Eventually, Seiders argues, AirAdvice's devices could proliferate like fire alarms, scanning the air inside buildings for bio-agents -- and feeding the information into a nationwide monitoring system. AirAdvice CEO Jim Crowder hopes she's right. His company has already developed its first detector for organic gases, such as toxic finishes, and might look into more ambitious products: A cartoon in Crowder's office cubicle shows four people in lab coats, carrying boxes. One is on the phone, saying: "Can I call you back? We are in the middle of transitioning from tree-frogs allergies to bioterrorism."

Since the post-September 11 anthrax attacks, biodetection has been the bandwagon to climb on. In January, the U.S. Health & Human Services Dept. announced $1.1 billion in funding to help states prepare for bioterror threats. But a June survey of U.S. mayors, conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, revealed that only 10% of some 120 cities have the gear and training needed to respond to a biological attack. That's true even though many cities have been buying all "that glitters," says Brigadier General Annette Sobel, special assistant to the chief of the National Guard's bureau for weapons of mass destruction and civil support.

Not all that glitters is gold, it turns out. The truth is that the Star Trek tricorder, a handheld device that Dr. McCoy used to instantly scan patients for viruses and find life forms behind rocks, is still the stuff of science fiction. Much of today's biodetection equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars and is so heavy that it would have to be hauled around on a truck.

RECENT LEAPS. Some detectors have other limitations: They can detect a bio-agent but can't tell what it is. Traditional tests take hours and would pinpoint the bacteria sprayed over a crowd at a baseball game only after the fans have gone home -- and infected their friends and neighbors.

Still, thanks to the government's extra funding, biodetection research has leaped in the nearly 10 months since the attacks. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, staffers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., placed 19 special air-quality monitors throughout Salt Lake City. Humming like vacuum cleaners, these boxes sucked in hundreds of liters of air a minute that was forced through sheets of absorbent paper. Couriers would collect the samples three times a day and rush them to a lab for tests, says Pat Fitch, program leader for the chemical and biological national security program at Livermore.

Back then, scientists took seven hours from when the air was collected to get test results. Now, the same process takes 30 minutes, Fitch says. Livermore's next-generation device not only collects air samples but also tests them on the spot, in an automated minilab the size of an office desk. Instead of using a traditional culture test, in which a bacteria sample is allowed to grow for hours and then attacked with various viruses to determine its origins, the detector simply checks the sample's DNA against its database, says Fitch. The lab is planning its first field trials this fall, after which the detector may be deployed in sports arenas and buildings.

ROAD DUST OR BIOKILLER? Meanwhile, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore have developed portable devices that can spot biological contamination at a distance -- a major advance from the cargo-container-size prototype they previously built for the military. The machines direct laser beams at approaching clouds to make their molecules fluorescent, then compare their color with a database to determine if the cloud is road dust or biological, a possible indication of a biokiller.

Thanks to Sandia's skill in making miniature lasers, these devices, soon to be tested in trials, are now no bigger than a bathtub and weigh only 300 pounds. They're small enough to fit into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that might patrol the skies during military operations and, eventually, over cities. Or they could be placed into sports stadiums, says Duane Lindner, the lab's deputy director of chem-bio programs.

Sandia scientists are also developing handheld detectors, though not yet those of Star Trek sophistication. They've created the first prototypes of tiny minilabs that can, after a sample is inserted, pump out results in two minutes. And researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., have created prototypes of handheld detectors that could analyze water, saliva, or dissolved powder in minutes, says Jill Trewhella, leader of the lab's bioscience division. The molecules in the devices' membranes fluoresce when they come into contact with certain bacteria, such as cholera.

INSTANT DIAGNOSIS. Major advances are also being made in the more mundane field of screening mail. Today, letters are irradiated to kill bacteria. But that damages some letters, film, and photographs, says Kurt Petersen, president of DNA analysis firm Cepheid (CPHD) in Sunnyvale, Calif. Worse, irradiation fails to alert the mail carriers who handle infected letters on their way to the sorting facilities that do the irradiation.

Thus, Cepheid and defense electronics giant Northorp Grumman (NOC) recently created a detector, to be placed into the U.S. Postal Service's sorting rooms, which would scan envelopes and packages for anthrax and other bio-agents -- and instantly determine if they're infected. The previously secret technology is already being tested in a pilot trial, says Petersen.

One nagging problem with all such devices is high cost. If the Livermore lab's air detector is commercialized as planned by 2004, it could retail for $50,000, estimates Livermore's Fitch. It would also require expensive maintenance and a $500,000 supply of reagents per month to work nonstop. Thus, the monitor would likely be used only sporadically -- during sports events, say.

AS GOOD AS A LIVER. Another concern is that many portable detectors might not be powerful enough. A sensor that sucks in 10 milliliters of air per second would take 500 days to check all the air aboard a single Boeing 747, estimates Robert Duncan, an expert at the University of New Mexico who is also the husband of the National Guard's Sobel.

Finally, most of the systems now in labs can't detect genetically engineered viruses, although scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other researchers, are working on a device that responds to viruses in the same way a human liver does -- and that should detect such unusual killers. "It's hard enough when it's Mother Nature you're fighting," says Fitch. "Still, we've made tremendous advances in the past 12 months."

And at the current pace, the Star Trek tricorder could become a reality sooner than we think. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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