Adaptive Methods, Inc. Introduces the New Biosensor

It sounds a bit like the medical tricorder from the Star Trek series: a handheld device that can diagnose a wide variety of viral or bacterial illnesses within minutes or even seconds, right in the doctor's office. No expensive and time-consuming lab tests required.
Best of all for New Mexico, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and Sandia National Laboratories jointly hold a patent on the device, which for now is called "the biosensor."

Researchers have already shown that the biosensor can identify hepatitis B and C, HIV, hantavirus and flu, including H1N1, and other viral and bacterial pathogens, said Dr. David Larson, vice president for research at UNM Health Sciences Center and the project's lead researcher.

UNM has formed a partnership with Adaptive Methods Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based firm, which plans to build and market the device, Larson said. He predicts a commercial version of the biosensor will be for sale within two years.  The gadget's ability to detect blood-borne illness, particularly HIV and hepatitis, would be a great asset during disasters, such as the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, where health officials needed to quickly identify safe blood donors, he said.

"In a situation like Haiti, you can't easily test someone's blood for infection, and you can't ship blood units in and out of the area," Larson said.  The biosensor runs on AA batteries and can provide health officials with results in as little as five seconds, he said.  Existing methods for detecting some bacterial and viral illness involve DNA testing that cost hundreds of dollars and can take days to get results, he said.

On Thursday, R&D Magazine recognized the biosensor as one of the 100 most technologically significant new products of the year. It included it in its annual R&D 100 Awards, which are determined by an independent judging panel and the editors of R&D Magazine.

The biosensor also has interest from the military because it can identify biological agents such as anthrax that can be used in bioweapons. Initial research for the biosensor was funded by a three-year, $6 million grant in 2003 from the Defense Intelligence Agency in response to the anthrax attacks against the U.S. Congress and news media offices in 2001.

The biosensor can test blood, saliva, urine or any other water-based compound, Larson said. "You inject the fluid into a small hole in the device."  Its ability to test urine makes it ideal for testing for certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and chlamydia, he said.

Because it can test any kind of water-based solution, doctors can test throat swabs by dipping the Q-tip into a small amount of water.  The sensor can detect even minute amounts of virus or bacteria, he said.

The heart of the biosensor is a chip developed by Sandia researchers that identifies a bacteria or virus by weighing it, Larson said. On the surface of the chip are "tiny proteins" developed by UNM researchers that capture the virus or bacteria.

"The chip works like a really small scale," he said. "The virus has a certain weight. The weight of the virus causes the chip to give off an acoustic signal."  The device then interprets the signal and tells the user what type of virus or bacteria was captured. The results can be displayed on a computer screen or even an iPhone or BlackBerry, he said.

Greater concentrations of virus or bacteria produce a louder signal "so you can tell how much is there as well," he said.

The biosensor's newest prototype uses chips in cartridge form that can be quickly loaded into the device, Larson said. Each single-use chip now can be manufactured for under $10. He expects the whole unit to cost less than $5,000.

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