Retroreflectors may play role in detecting bioterrorism threats

The reflector technology found on bikes and running sneakers may now detect bioterrorism threats and infectious diseases, announced the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society on Wednesday.

The device, called a retroreflector, shrinks the reflectors to be able to fit 200 within the period at the end of a sentence. Retroreflectors are said to potentially be the brightest detection device ever made, since it reflects back an immensely bright light when in use.

When a fluid without a bacterial substance passes the device, it shines brightly; if there is a bacterial substance certain parts of the reflection of the retroreflector will remain dark, indicating a positive test result for a certain bacterial substance.

This technology is thought to be able to save revenue for its clients, since its test results can be analyzed using simple optical devices, compared to previous methods which required expensive, complex technology. It can also diagnose faster than previous methods, such as blood tests.

"Our goal is the development of an ultrasensitive, all-in-one device that can quickly tell first-responders exactly which disease-causing microbe has been used in a bioterrorism attack," Richard Willson, lead researcher on the technology, said. "In the most likely kind of attack, large numbers of people would start getting sick with symptoms that could be from multiple infectious agents. But which one? The availability of an instrument capable of detecting several agents simultaneously would greatly enhance our response to a possible bioterror attack or the emergence of a disease not often seen here."

Willson's team will also be developing a similar device for doctor's offices and clinics. This can provide for a quick diagnosis of illness, without the need for blood samples and lab testing.

This is not the first time reflectors have been used for something other than street signs and bikes. Willson's teammates explained at the Expo that Apollo 11 astronauts also used the technology in 1969 to study the moon's orbit.

"Right now, we have seven channels in our device," Balakrishnan Raja, a member of Willson's team, said. "So we can test for seven different infections at once, but we could make more channels. That's one of our long-term goals - to multiplex the device and detect many pathogens at once."

Willson's team has also found a way to sample for the bacteria responsible for Mediterranean spotted fever, a significant bioterrorism threat.