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GEN News Highlights : Nov 5, 2012

Detecting the "Andromeda Strain" Faster and Cheaper

Scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute have applied for a patent on a faster and cheaper means of detecting bioterror threats, designed to also speed up application of countermeasures.

The new method, to be detailed in the Nov. 5 issue of Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, screens for pairs of affinity reagents that bind with target bacteria, toxins, or viruses in under an hour. Normally such screening requires costly equipment to purify and analyze the affinity reagents, which can number in the hundreds and as a result take weeks to months to complete.

The method—which has worked with crude extracts of E. coli bacteria—allows scientists to make complete stop-gap tests to any given biological threat in days, including the one-hour screening step.

“It had to be simple and self-contained as we eventually needed it to work in the space-suit lab or hot zone," Andrew Hayhurst, Ph.D., a Texas Biomed virologist, said in a statement. “The great thing about this test pipeline is that it can be applied to almost any target of interest including markers of diseases like cancer.”

He said Texas Biomed, formerly the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, could potentially license the method to diagnostics developers focused on specific medical conditions, environmental monitoring, or acceleration of in-house research programs.

Dr. Hayhurst and colleagues at Texas Biomed are now working to reduce the entire testing process to a single day.

According to Texas Biomed’s 2011 annual report, Dr. Hayhurst and colleagues were focused on producing a stopgap test to detect an unknown threat within 48 hours using inexpensive and widely-available laboratory reagents, using Marburg virus as a model target. The annual report called the method a response to an “Andromeda Strain” scenario, citing the Michael Crichton book and movie about a researcher team’s effort to rapidly investigate a deadly organism that nearly kills all of mankind.

Research on the new method was funded primarily by Texas Biomed and the San Antonio Area Foundation, and in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and NIH.