Researchers develop system to detect biowarfare agents on navy ships

infiltrated a ship. Developed in the early 1990s for use in Operation Desert Storm, such test kits give users quick results, but also have their limits, Boehm said.

"While these tests are a good, quick prescreen, the only definitive way to determine if the results of the hand-held test are truly accurate is to grow the organisms in a laboratory," he said.

Level 2 confirmatory. Before the current testing system was in place, ship-bound Navy personnel had to wait 24 to 96 hours before getting a definitive answer on whether or not a suspected pathogen had infiltrated a ship, said Boehm. Suspicious samples were sent to land-based laboratories for testing. Under the new protocol, several warships have installed air filters connected to machines that run polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays tests that provide a genetic fingerprint of a biowarfare agent. These air filters "breathe" nearly 70 times the amount of air a sailor breathes.

"With PCR, we could find a single gene copy amid an ocean of pathogen in less than an hour," Boehm said. This kind of quick detection helps medical personnel know how to treat people who were exposed to the pathogen, ideally before those people have a chance to infect others.

Level 3 definitive. The suspected specimen is sent to BDRD or another national laboratory, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases for a full analysis.

"The problem with BW agents is that they come in a variety of forms, such as bacteria, toxins and viruses," Boehm said. "Several of the biggest threats anthrax and plague are bacteria and can be grown in a laboratory. But viruses like smallpox can only be grown in special conditions. Toxins can't be cultured."

While the three-tiered protocol was designed for seafaring ships, the same steps can be and have been taken to determine the presence of BW agents in buildings and other enclos

Contact: Michael Boehm
Ohio State University

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