Nanobeads could improve bioweapon detection

Researchers at Oregon State University have developed magnetic “nanobeads” that may improve the detection of biological and chemical agents and that could have applications in medical diagnostics, water and food safety, and bioterrorism.

Scientists used extraordinarily tiny pieces of rust - ferromagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles - to detect chemicals with sensitivity and selectivity in such a way that could be incorporated into an integrated circuit system to instantly display the findings.

“The particles we’re using are 1,000 times smaller than those now being used in common diagnostic tests, allowing a device to be portable and used in the field,” Vincent Remcho, an OSU professor of chemistry and associate dean for research and graduate programs, said. “Just as important, however, is that these nanoparticles are made of iron,” he said. “Because of that, we can use magnetism and electronics to make them also function as a signaling device, to give us immediate access to the information available.”

In the new approach, tiny nanoparticles are attached to biochemical probes that measure “ferromagnetic resonance” to relay information electronically to a tiny computer that immediately displays the information to a user.

The researchers said that the system could be used to detect nearly any substance of interest in air or water, including ricin, anthrax or smallpox.

This “microfluidic sensor” was reported on in the professional journal Sensors and Actuators. The university is pursuing a patent on related technologies.

The researchers said that when fully developed as a handheld, portable sensor, the technology could revolutionize the size, speed and accuracy of chemical detection systems worldwide.