Lawmakers briefed on biodetection advances

Lawmakers were briefed last week by a government biosecurity expert on the next generation "lab-in-a-box," which would be used by the Department of Homeland Security to detect, identify and aid in response to bioterrorism attacks.

Dr. Tara O'Toole, undersecretary at the DHS Directorate of Science and Technology, told a House subcommittee how new technology will be used to refine and improve the BioWatch program.

The lab-in-a-box, O'Toole said, was developed by the Directorate of Science and Technology and is currently being tested by the DHS Office of Health Affairs, which holds the responsibility for day-to-day management of the program.

The next-generation detector would replace current technology that requires its air sampler filters to be collected every 24 hours. Those filers are then analyzed at a local laboratory for pathogens.

"With this sampler technology and deployment (known as Generation 2), as much as 36 hours may elapse between the collection of genetic material of interest and the availability of essential laboratory test results showing its presence," Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein, a University of Pittsburgh professor and chair of the Committee on Effectiveness of National Biosurveillance Systems, told the subcommittee, reported.

The system works by creating a BioWatch Actionable Result when a pathogen is detected. Local public health officials are then notified by the lab and a response is created.

O'Toole said that the next-generation technology could reduce pathogen detection rates to four hours and allow for the automatic collection outdoor air samples. Molecular analysis of the samples would the be performed, with that analysis reported electronically in an almost real-time report.

"It is broader and more flexible than BioWatch, permitting detection of a wider range of infectious diseases and diseases resulting from source of exposure that BioWatch is not designed or deployed to detect," Goldstein said.