Sandia National Laboratories creates BaDx anthrax detection cartridge to aid global agriculture using technology that could be adapted for use by clinical laboratories
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) recently unveiled a credit-card-size anthrax detector that works like a portable medical laboratory in the field. Pathologists will recognize this as another example of how the newest diagnostic technologies are being used to create diagnostic tests for application in developing countries that lack a well-developed network of clinical laboratories.
Similar to the way a home-pregnancy test operates, this pocket-size anthrax detection cartridge relies on a lateral flow assay. It can make evaluating agricultural samples in developing countries “safer, easier, faster and cheaper,” according to a SNL news release.
SNL licensed the BaDx detector, which is short for Bacillus anthracis Diagnostic, to Aquila Group, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based business solutions provider, according to a news story published by Laboratory Equipment, one of many media outlets to pick up SNL’s announcement.
Pathologists, clinical laboratory administrators, and medical technologists recognize that detection of anthrax is a technologically advanced and expensive process that is inaccessible to many poor regions of the world. Researchers at SNL wanted to combine various technologies to create a miniaturized, cost-effective solution that can diagnose disease in the field—without the need to move specimens to a modern central laboratory.
Cost and Safety Drive Sandia National Laboratories’ Creation of BaDx
Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis (B. anthracis), a deadly bacteria typically found in soils worldwide. It’s dangerous to both farm animals and humans who work with the animals.
While farmers in developed nations reportedly conduct tests on animals for B. anthracis, farmers working in poor regions of the world must deal with unique challenges to testing their farm animals for anthrax and other pathogens.
“Farmers in many developing countries don’t make a lot of money, so they don’t pay for diagnostic testing often. When they do, they can’t afford to pay a lot for it,” stated Melissa Finley, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinarian and researcher at SNL, who worked on the detector.
Using the device, a test for B. anthracis costs about $6, as compared to $30 for a conventional diagnostic test. Also, the SNL technology might render it unnecessary for medical laboratory technologists to grow and work with substantial quantities of a deadly pathogen, noted a report published by medGadget.com.
“Working with dangerous samples like B. anthracis spores places laboratory staff at risk. Concentrating many positive test samples in a lab could also tempt someone to steal positive anthrax samples for nefarious uses,” Finley said.
How does the BaDx work, and who will buy it?
BaDx, which requires no battery or electricity, stands up against wide temperature changes, according to SNL. The cassette can detect small numbers of B. anthracis spores. This is a benefit in geographic areas where anthrax is prevalent, but refrigeration and modern medical laboratories are scarce.
Sandia describes operation of the diagnostic test device in the hands of a trained technician in the field as follows:
- A sample swab is placed by the technician into the amplification chamber, which contains growth media.
- Using a lateral flow assay (similar to the technology used in many pregnancy tests), BaDx detects B. anthracis.
- The sample advances from stage to stage using magnetically operated valves.
- A sample tests positive when a colored line appears on the device several hours later.
- A chemical process can be used to sterilize the device at the test’s conclusion.
- The device is sealed closed, making it difficult for live bacteria to be extracted.
A spokesperson for Aquila envisions substantial market opportunities for BaDx. “We see a lot of potential for government customers and nongovernment organizations, as well as commercial markets,” said Markku Koskelo, Chief Scientist for Aquila, who was quoted in the SNL news release.
Portable Clinical Laboratory Technology Not a New Idea
Many different organizations are working to develop pocket-sized medical laboratory testing devices like the BaDx.
In fact, Dark Daily reported nearly three years ago about a handheld device allowing developing nations and remote areas to test for HIV and syphilis in the field. (See Dark Daily, “Rapid HIV Test Could Revolutionize Clinical Laboratory Testing Performed in Developing Nations”, August 17 2011).
In the months preceding that story, Dark Daily readers learned of microfluidic nanotechnology making it possible to create “mini labs” in physicians’ offices (see Dark Daily, “Pathologists Watch as New Lab-on-a-Chip Technology is Developed for Testing Patients in Doctors’ Offices”, December 27, 2010.)
As to the SNL-created technology, the consequences of not testing animals for anthrax are life and death. And the laboratory’s team noted that the device’s design has implications for other disease-carrying bacteria, specifically salmonella and group A streptococcus, which causes strep throat.
Development and adoption of point-of-care diagnostic technologies—like BaDx—can play an important role in addressing healthcare issues in developing countries. Moreover, once the reliability of these low-cost diagnostic tests are proven in third world settings, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers might expect to see them adapted for use by developed nations.
—by Donna Marie Pocius