Laboratory Develops Systems To Detect Pathogens

LIVERMORE, CA — Soon after the anthrax attacks last fall, the call for new weapons to detect and control known deadly biological agents was stepped up dramatically. One research facility, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA, put its research into fast-forward and, as a result, it is close to bringing two detection systems into the production stage.

For the past decade, researchers at Lawrence Livermore have been developing systems that can quickly detect and identify these deadly agents, which include pathogens such as anthrax.

Richard Langlois, senior biomedical scientist for Lawrence Livermore, said that detecting and identifying is not enough today; performing these tasks quickly is paramount.

“Our theme is to speed up the process and, in some cases, do it on the spot,” he said. “Typically it has taken days or weeks to test. We have developed two instruments with this philosophy in mind.”

The two systems under development are the Handheld Advanced Nucleic Analyzer (HANNA) and the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS).

“HANNA is a device that a first responder ... would use at the scene of an incident and test for pathogens,” Langlois said. “In contrast, the APDS is an automated, continuous monitoring system which functions like a smoke detector. It continuously samples or tests the air.”


The HANNA device is shaped like a brick and weighs about two pounds. The portable kit allows for sampling of air, human tissue, and “suspicious” substances, which could be analyzed for traces of the anthrax bacteria.

HANNA operators put samples in a buffer and add chemicals, which could also include DNA samples of the pathogens they are testing. Through heating and cooling, the DNA test can reveal if the deadly agent is present.

“We developed the instrument, made several prototypes which we used, and also sent some out to university and public health officials for comments,” said Langlois. “We gave all of those comments and evidence to our commercial partner, Environmental Technologies Group [ETG], and they are now reengineering the product to solve some of the problems that the customers found.


This larger system (about the size of a podium) will contain a computer monitor, keyboard, fan, and a variety of compartments to hold testing liquids and to hold air samples.

The machine pulls in air particles, combines them with liquids for sampling, and prints out a report on the antibody test results every 30 minutes. The information can be transmitted via computer networking to a central location for analysis.

“We will initially do some first tests on APDS to see that it works scientifically,” said Langlois. “Then we will work very closely with a commercial partner to do final testing and certification.

“We had hoped to introduce HANNA within the year but now that we have a commercial partner, the product will be ready for the market in the next month or two,” Langlois added. “We expected to work on APDS for a couple of more years, but we have gotten requests from several commercial partners and I expect to see the product out within the next year."

Publication date: 07/22/2002

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