Tri-Cities firms take aim at bioterrorism
Seattle Times business reporter
RICHLAND — Some of the world's most advanced anthrax and biological-pathogen detectors are being created here by a small group of scientists and entrepreneurs, but they agree the quest for something truly accurate, automated and fast — a smoke detector — is still years away.
Plenty of research still needs to be done, but two tiny companies in the Tri-Cities — MesoSystems Technology and InnovaTek — are among a handful of small defense contractors under urgent pressure to produce.
Since Sept. 11, both companies have taken hundreds of calls from fire departments, the military and businesses that want air samplers and detectors immediately. Suppliers have been running out of gear. Investors have offered them millions. Deals are being worked with big defense contractors to mass-produce the inventions.
But there is a catch: Leading biodefense scientists, fire officials and the companies say the detection process has a long way to go before Americans can have absolute confidence in a reliable warning of biological attack. The gold standard still involves taking detailed swabs from a scene and watching cultures grow for days in a lab.
As Dr. Karen Wahl, an analytical chemist at the federally funded lab puts it, "Everybody expects a Star Trek-type device you hold up to it that works, but it doesn't exist."
The need for greater biological defenses was heightened by the Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. One year later, Congress approved $100 million for chemical and biological defenses, which the military has handed out in grants that have been the lifeblood for the Tri-Cities companies and competitors such as Cepheid of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Idaho Technology of Salt Lake City.
The detection technology has had plenty of room to improve. In the Gulf War, troops used detectors that clogged up because they weren't able to filter out dust, mosquitoes and other particles from the small, fine bacteria they were looking for. The system produced false positive readings, sending troops scrambling for no reason. It also wasn't practical because it used heavy equipment with lots of chemicals.
"Essentially, the military was out there with a lab on a jeep," said Dr. Charles Call, chief executive of MesoSystems.
The lab on a jeep was necessary, scientists said, because biological detection is complex. There are billions of types of bacteria, and some harmless strains have protein structures and DNA that are similar to deadly pathogens, Call said. Plus, samples of air or water can easily be contaminated by dust, pollen, dirt or other particles in the air.
Three main systems
Experts say there are three main detection technologies for instant use by the military or hazardous-material teams. The most basic system, built by MesoSystems and InnovaTek, uses hand-held sensors coated with antibodies. A vacuum-cleaner-type device sucks in air, then the system uses cyclone forces or liquid-coated fans to separate unwanted particles from those to be examined.
Once the sample is cleaned up, it is concentrated into a liquid. Then a test strip coated with specific antibodies for biowarfare agents, such as anthrax, is inserted into the device, like a home pregnancy test. The bacteria, if present, will cling to the antibodies and change the color of the test strip.
The approach has its advantages. In a confined room, it can detect lethal bacteria within minutes.
"If there is a single spore in an 8-foot-by-10-foot room, (the device) can detect it within 17 minutes," said Dr. Patricia Irving, chief executive of InnovaTek.
The problem is that haz-mat teams on the scene often can't pinpoint where to start air sampling, and the test strips may not have all the antibodies that will react with every conceivable agent of bioterrorism. And in the environment, the system could easily miss pathogens blowing around in swirling winds.
"It's reliable, but how do you know where to put it?" said Calvin Chue, a research scientist with Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense studies. "And because of the complexity and range of biological agents, it's difficult to develop any single platform that will detect all of them."
Negative results no assurance
Seiders said a positive antibody test can work as a quick warning, but a negative test result shouldn't give peace of mind.
"They can't definitively say nothing is there," Seiders said. "The old standby is still in a lab, taking cultures with swabs, and letting the germs grow."
Another field method, called ELISA, is considered more advanced and reliable and uses swabs laden with antibodies.
The other main field detection method, employed by Cepheid and Idaho Technology, cracks open a spore or biological organism and looks at its DNA to identify it. The tests work within minutes and are considered sophisticated. If there's only a small amount of a sample, copies of DNA pieces can help make the analysis more accurate.
The U.S. military is hungry for this technique, which is not available yet to fire departments or haz-mat teams. Still, scientists say it has disadvantages. A little dirt, water or dirty air can throw off the results, and the methods to clean up samples aren't refined enough, said Darrell Chandler, a molecular biologist at PNNL.
Chandler is working on a system that would latch onto and filter out unwanted particles from a dirty sample, to better bridge the gap between samplers and detectors. A prototype for such sample-cleaning technology has been built, and Chandler said it is a year or two away from market.
"It isn't just a matter of detection — there are great detectors," Seiders said. "It's a matter of getting what kind of sample you need. If you look at a mailroom, you've got bins, envelopes, probably some cigarette smoke, the remains of lunch in the trash and a pale brown powder. How do you go from that situation to knowing you have anthrax?"
Ideally, experts say, two or three systems would be used for cross-checking.
The lack of a single magic bullet hasn't discouraged many researchers with ambitious goals.
Dr. Jeanne Small, a biophysicist at Eastern Washington University, is working on a $1.2 million prototype for the military that shines a laser into an air sample and records the sound waves given off by specific bacteria. The system would constantly monitor air as a smoke detector does, but it is years, if not a decade, away, Small said.
MesoSystems has other big ambitions. It is working on a wearable air sampler for the military that could be strapped to a soldier's arm. It wouldn't have an alarm, but it could keep an archive of the air a soldier breathes, enabling troops to get the right antibiotics in time, Call said. It is also working on a system to constantly filter and kill airborne pathogens in a confined room.
InnovaTek is working on a plasma gun to kill pathogens with an electric current. Irving said the military wants it to decontaminate cockpits, night-vision goggles and other things that can't be sprayed with bleach. InnovaTek also says samplers can determine when pests are in the air, to reduce the need for constant spraying of pesticides in orchards and can be used to diagnose a "sick building."
Both companies say they can use the military grants to try to crack into those lucrative markets.
InnovaTek and MesoSystems started as partners but split in 1997. Irving and Call took leaves of absence from PNNL, where they worked on detection technology.
In 1995, Irving recalls, contacts in Washington, D.C., told her bioterrorism was "a matter of when, not if." The military was offering money to companies who could develop air samplers.
One day after the attacks
The Navy awarded InnovaTek a $600,000 contract in June to start producing detectors. The order changed one day after the terrorist attacks. Irving won't say how many more the company will make, but she said they will start cranking them out within a week.
"We got e-mails the next day saying we had to ramp it up," Irving said. "My question was, 'When do you need it,' and the answer was always, 'Now.' "
MesoSystems can relate. It, like InnovaTek, started with a $100,000 military grant. The Army was looking for a sampler that was smaller, lighterand that ran on less battery power.
But after doing market research in 1998, MesoSystems began making devices for fire departments instead of the military, Call said. He said municipalities needed the devices, had the cash, and would probably buy more quickly than the military.
By December 2000, the air sampler was ready for the market. It is hand-held, costs about $10,000, and works in 30 minutes. MesoSystems sold 30 to 50 of the devices before the attacks. The Seattle and Los Angeles fire departments were among its first customers.
MesoSystems is scrambling to make 200 by the end of the year. It hopes to double its staff and start making its wearable sampler within a year, Call said.
Getting enough people to use them correctly will be a new challenge, Seiders said, because "people are desperate to buy anything," even without training.
But Seattle Deputy Fire Chief A.D. Vickery said his department will use them.
"These are screening tools, and we have a definite need for them," Vickery said. "But we are always going to rely on a lab for a definitive answer."
Luke Timmerman can be reached at 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.