New technology detects bioterrorism

Abbey Stirgwolt

Liquid crystral biosensor science may aid in defending against all kinds of harmful pathogens

The world will soon be a safer place, thanks to researchers from Kent State and Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

The two institutions recently collaborated to develop a new type of technology that detects bioterrorism agents, such as anthrax, and other potentially harmful pathogens – all within minutes.

“(Our discovery is) unique because it can test for multiple samples,” said Gary Niehaus, associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at NEOUCOM. “It’s also quick.”

Samples may be drawn from food, water or air and can be detected in 40 minutes to one hour, Niehaus said, depending on the type of pathogen.

Liquid crystal biosensor technology works by placing a layer of liquid crystals between two sheets of specialized glass that are designed to polarize light passing through, Niehaus said.

Because liquid crystals are able to bend light, any foreign particle will create a spot in the normal light pattern. This tips scientists off that something’s not right.

The sensor then uses antibodies to “sort” microbes according to type, thus identifying the particles in question.

Not only is this technology moving toward a debut in the national market, it may eventually be found in medicine cabinets across the country.

“It can be used for clinical diagnosis,” said project member Chris Woolverton, associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State.

Where most labs require 24 to 72 hours to achieve results from bacteria cultures, the new liquid crystal biosensor technology considerably reduces the time required for diagnosis.

Eventually, the device may be used in homes to avoid unnecessary visits to the doctor, Woolverton said.

“In five to 10 years, it may be used for limited clinical diagnosis in the home,” he said.

This would prevent the anxious mother who thinks her child has strep throat from paying for a doctor visit, only to learn that he has a common cold.

In addition to its ability to detect harmful pathogens in food and water, liquid crystal biosensor technology also has military applications, Niehaus said, as it can be used to detect potentially harmful airborne chemicals.

Kent State and NEOUCOM’s liquid crystal biosensor technology has recently been licensed to two companies – one in Tallmadge and one in Boulder, Colo. – for further development.

Research for the project was funded in part by the university, in addition to an $800,000 grant from the government, Niehaus said.

Contact technology reporter Abbey Stirgwolt at [email protected].