Researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory have developed a sensor that can detect and identify airborne pathogens—including anthrax and smallpox—in less than three minutes. Up until now, sensors have taken at least 20 minutes to detect harmful bacteria or viruses in the air, according to MIT. The technology has been licensed to Biosensors Inc., which has begun selling a product, BioFlash, based on the technology.
The sensor, called PANTHER, for PAthogen Notification for THreatening Environmental Releases, uses a cell-based technology known as Canary and can pick up a positive reading with only a few dozen particles per liter of air. The Canary concept uses an array of immune cells called B cells, each specific to a particular bacterium or virus. The cells are engineered to emit photons of light when they detect their target pathogen. Currently, the device can detect 24 pathogens, including anthrax, plague, smallpox, tularema, and E. coli.
PANTHER combines the Canary technology with an air sampler that brings pathogens into contact with the detector cells. The prototype unit is about a cubic foot and weighs 37 lbs. Research on PANTHER was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
“There’s really nothing out there that compares with this,” said Todd Rider of Lincoln Lab’s Biosensor and Molecular Technologies Group, who invented the Canary technology. “B cells in the body are very fast and very sensitive.”
MIT Lincoln Lab www.ll.mit.edu