- (Blacksburg, Va. -- During the 1991 Persian
Gulf War when the first real threat of biological warfare was heralded,
dozens of pathogens went undetected, mostly because of the limited technology
available to the military.
- To detect many of these weaponizable
biological agents (WBA), a sensor must be able to identify a pathogen at
a measurement of parts per trillion. Technology available during the Gulf
War only allowed measurements of parts per billion.
- A novel sensor, developed by two Virginia
Tech engineering faculty members, is now capable of literally identifying
"a needle in a haystack," says William Velander, one of the inventors.
His device has showed results that are 20 times more powerful than previous
- Velander, a biochemical engineer who
heads Virginia Tech's Pharmaceutical Engineering Institute, teamed with
Kent Murphy, a fiber optics expert and a member of the electrical engineering
department, to develop the prototype biosensor.
- To develop the new biosensor, Velandar
expanded upon some of his previous work. He adapted a technology he invented
that is employed to purify pharmaceuticals present in blood plasma at trace
levels. By combining his scientific process with an optical fiber sensing
device, Velander and Murphy have found that they can "capture biological
warfare agents" that were previously undetectable.
- For example, the prototype biosensor
detects endotoxin at a level that is 20 times lower than previously achieved
by other devices. "Endotoxin is composed of compounds called lipopolysaccharides
found in bacteria such as E.coli. The presence of endotoxin from a blood
borne infection (sepsis) of a gram negative bacteria can cause clotting,
organ failure and subsequent death," Velander explains.
- Velander estimates there are several
hundred WBAs that currently exist that can induce battlefield and civilian
casualties that can now be detected. "The new biosensor approaches
the sensitivity of a dog sniffing airborne chemicals," Velander adds.
- Another advantage of the new sensor is
its speed. Current technology for detecting certain pathogens, in addition
to being less sensitive, is also time consuming. It typically requires
an hour or more of laboratory based effort. This new biosensor produces
its finding in close to "real time," Velander says, or in just
a few seconds.
- Velander's partner, Murphy, is also the
president of Virginia's fastest growing technology company, F&S Inc.
The Blacksburg-based company funded the work, and it now plans to market
the new technology through a second company called Luna.
- At this time, the research prototype
is not field deployable, Velander emphasizes. Its size is its current drawback;
although, with investment capital, Velander asserts that the biosensor
can be made into a belt-pack size, battery-generated portable device, capable
of being taken onto a battlefield.
- Murphy and Velander envision other applications,
including pharmaceutical manufacturing, environmental monitoring, medical
diagnostics, drug discovery, and process control.
- "One of the biggest applications
will be in drug discovery work," Murphy says. It can take six to nine
months to screen libraries of new chemicals, but with the new sensor, configured
in an array of 100 fibers, a determination could be made within a few weeks.
A typical library can contain between 10,000 and 10 million compounds from
which to choose a new drug. "This application is extremely exciting,"
- He indicated that he is speaking with
government agencies and industrial laboratories about supporting this work.