DARPA – Advanced Biothreat Sensors Under Development

040117-N-0331L-023 Arabian Sea (Jan. 17, 2004) -- Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) disposal technicians from the 1st Marines 1st Battalion prepare to search the Military Sealift Command (MSC) combat stores ship USNS Saturn (T-AFS 10). The NBC team was looking for mock Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) during a mock non-compliant boarding as part of exercise Sea Saber 2004. The 5th Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercise of its kind, Sea Saber focuses on the interdiction of a maritime shipment of weapons of mass destruction and related equipment and materials on the high seas. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jeffrey Lehrberg. (RELEASED)

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The ability to rapidly detect biothreats often relies on expertise and equipment that’s difficult to transport and takes time to carry out. A new collaboration between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and researchers at Iowa State University aims at developing a portable sensor platform capable of detecting numerous biothreats, such as the coronavirus and other toxic agents. 

Such sensors could be kept in government buildings, airports, or anywhere else at risk for biothreat exposure and could help to quickly detect and mitigate dangers.

“Up to now we’ve been looking at detecting infectious viruses in people who are infected. This is an opportunity to develop a means of detecting viruses and other biothreats in the air. In other words, we’d be able to quickly identify when there is a biothreat in the surrounding environment and protect people from exposure,” said Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, a professor in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biophysics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and principal investigator of the project.

During the five-year project that is worth $2.5 million, the team proposes to create a device roughly the size of a shoebox that can sample the air for a range of biothreats, including Ebola virus, SARS-CoV-2 and various toxins. 

The technology would include a microfluidic collection device that gathers air samples and a suite of sensors to detect and identify biothreats. The device will transfer particles extracted from air samples into a liquid stream to concentrate the particles. The stream passes through an aluminum oxide membrane that contains aptamers, or nucleic acids that behave similarly to antibodies in the human immune system. The biothreat particles bind to the aptamers, which sets off an electrical signal that the sensors detect.

The team will select aptamers capable of binding to the proteins of the various biothreats included in the scope of the project. The lab has isolated and characterized eight aptamers from millions, and one of the challenges for this project will be finding optimal aptamers for each threat.

Part of the challenge for the project comes from the wide range of biothreats the device aims to detect. The device must reliably capture and identify various particles that have dimensions ranging from a few nanometers to micrometers, a unit of measurement that’s a thousand times larger.

The difference between a micrometer and a nanometer might seem insignificant under most circumstances, but, at the microscopic level where the researchers work, that’s a lot of variability for one technology to handle. According to news.iastate.edu, the scientists are considering ways to capture a wide range of aerosolized biothreats.