NM scientists create pocket-sized anthrax detector

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Scientists at Sandia National Labs have created a device that can detect a very dangerous substance that’s been known to kill livestock and even humans. The tester has been years in the making. Now, scientists hope it’ll potentially help save lives.

The tiny tester can pinpoint anthrax. It’s the size of a credit card, “a laboratory in your pocket, basically,” explained Jason Harper, of Sandia National Labs.

Scientists say the device will make a big difference around the world, as a cheap, easy way to detect anthrax.

“Something that you can do in the field, something that someone without much technical skill or expertise can do, and it’s also very safe,” Harper explained.

Bacillus anthracis, the bug anthrax comes from, can be found in soils all over the world, and infects animals when ingested. It can also spread to humans, and is often fatal in both humans and animals.

“So all over the world there’s anthrax outbreaks in cattle, and we want to be able to use this device so that the veterinarians can use this to detect and ascertain whether there’s been an anthrax outbreak,” Harper said.

The consequences for not testing animals suspected of having anthrax is often life or death. Testing is normally expensive and out-of-reach for farmers.

The new tiny tester will go for about $5-$7, and serve as an easy way for farmers to diagnose their animals, especially in countries where the need is dire.

“Many times because the environments are so low resource, the people when the animal gets sick or dies, they actually use it for consumption, and as a result there have been many outbreaks of the disease,” said Melissa Finley, staff Scientist and Veterinarian with Sandia National Labs.

Finley worked with labs in less-developed countries, and said she saw the need particularly in Afghanistan, where lab workers tested infectious diseases in large quantities, and unsafe environments.

Anthrax was used by terrorists after 9-11, when contaminated letters were sent to politicians. Now, scientists say this accessible testing will hopefully prevent the bacteria from getting into the wrong hands.

“Then you won’t create these large repositories that can potentially infect lab workers, and could also be stolen,” Finley said.

Using a Q-tip for a sample, the tester will show whether an anthrax infection is present, and potentially save lives.

Scientists hope to adapt the device to eventually be sold over the counter for people to home-test for bacteria which causes strep throat or staff infections.

Sandia has licensed the device to Aquila, a New Mexico small business that specializes in the design and manufacture of technologies and services for nuclear security and international safeguards. Aquila will begin marketing the device.

Creators see potential for government customers, nongovernmental organizations, as well as commercial markets across the globe. The tester’s initial use will be monitored, so not just anyone can purchase it just yet.

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