Detecting Biological Agents: Billions of Dollars Spent but Nothing Tangible


Just came across this fascinating interview by Mark Kellogg in Clinical Chemistry with three experts in the field of biological agent detection. The interview is a fascinating read for all wrong reasons. After the Anthrax attacks of 2001, billions of dollars have been spent to develop portable devices (biosensors) for detection and identification of biological agents. The goal is to have devices that first responders can use in the field for what one expert called “detect to warn” –means one can detect a biological attack fast enough to take appropriate intervention to prevent widespread infection. But what this interview highlight is that here we are 8 years after the attack and not a single technology is up to the task for use in field. Just focusing on the technological issues several key points emerge from the interview

  • Although there are lateral immunoassay type kits that can be used by first responders they are not sensitive and specific enough. Low reliability of these devices can trigger unnecessary actions.
  • PCR type assays are quick but need well trained technician in laboratory settings
  • Most of the new biosensing technologies based on nanotechnology and micro/nano MEMS are hyped to be more specific and sensitive are at research stage and need substantial investment for standardization, optimization and validation before they can be commercialized
  • Miniaturized clinical biosensors take significant resources and are expensive
  • Technical challenges of any biosensors that claims to be suitable for point-of-attack detection are
    • Sensitivity and specificity: capability to detect bacteria, toxin, virus in presence of almost infinite types of sample matrices and potential contaminant
    • Robust and easy to operate so that they can be used by first responders with limited technical capability
    • Fast, so that quick action can be taken

I am shaking my head and wondering why we have so little to show for billions of dollars spent on biosensing technologies and how can this be changed not only for detection of biological agents but also for other applications like point-of-care diagnostics, environmental monitoring and food testing?


One response to “Detecting Biological Agents: Billions of Dollars Spent but Nothing Tangible

  1. There is trend going on for a simple PCR device like lateral flow device…maybe one hope.

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