Researchers Devising New Test for Anthrax in Water

March 1, 2002

Tests that would quickly and painlessly determine anthrax poisoning of a water supply are on the horizon because of research at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, reports Bob Susnjara of The Daily Herald.

If perfected at the Naval Dental Research Institute, which is located at the base near Lake Michigan, a hand-held machine that tests liquids would produce results within minutes. Two private companies are assisting in the machine's development.

While designed specifically for combat fighters, the new tests likely would be available to civilians as well, officials told Susnjara.

Capt. James Ragain Jr., commanding officer of the research institute, said the idea for a new testing procedure arose about three years ago, as a way to achieve faster results when determining the presence of tuberculosis in sailors and marines.

"After 9/11, we felt we should focus more on biological warfare agents," Ragain told Susnjara yesterday. "We're still doing tuberculosis. We just flip-flopped the priority of how we're going to do it."

Ragain said it's possible the new testing method will be ready for use within a year. Pending patents were issued in January.

Currently, painful tests for anthrax spores involve a swab of at least three inches being inserted deep into a potential victim's nose. The nasal fluids are placed in a petri dish and incubated before results are known in about a day.

"I've talked to people who have had this done, and they say it is very unpleasant," Ragain said. "And they prefer not having it done again."

Under the new technique being developed at the research institute, saliva or nasal secretions would be squirted into a hole in the hand-held machine to determine exposure to anthrax spores.

Nasal samples would be culled with shot of water from a small tube. Saliva would be simply spit into the test tube.

Ragain said the test would be painless, and numbered results would be shown on the meter in minutes. That means a potential victim can receive life-saving antibiotics faster.

Because the hand-held machine tests liquids, it could go beyond revealing the presence of diseases, such as anthrax or TB in humans. He said it would be capable of determining whether a water supply was poisoned minutes after inserting a test-tube-sized sample.

Two companies that Navy officials declined to identify have been helping to build the hand-held meters. Ragain said the companies have been miniaturizing a larger machine that would be used in laboratories.

Research director Lloyd Simonson said anthrax tests on the hand-held machine would be much simpler than those performed last year on potential anthrax victims in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the United States.

Established in 1947, the research institute at Great Lakes began with one dental officer. It has evolved into a facility that focuses on developing new screening tests for infectious diseases, oral biology and determining the immunization status of sailors and marines.

Ragain said blood research often gains most of the attention, so it is satisfying to know the role other fluids can play in developing lower-cost, noninvasive screenings for diseases, such as anthrax and TB.

Source: The Daily Herald

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