Every time someone is tested for anthrax using nasal swabs or blood samples, the culturing, or growing, of the microbes from those tests can require up to two days--a painfully long wait for a nation gripped by fear of bioterrorism. With the emerging threat of biological and chemical assaults, a pressing need exists for reliable and rapid tests to detect such agents. Along with five colleagues, Christopher J. Woolverton, a biologist at Kent State University, received in January 2001 a patent (U.S.: 6,171,802) for a real-time pathogen-detection system to identify microbes, such as anthrax, in less than five minutes.
MicroDiagnosis in Bellevue, Wash., has licensed Woolverton's technology to create StatDetect, a prototype sensor the size of a credit card. The sample to be tested--say, a nasal swab--is swiped onto a thin strip, which is inserted into an opening at one end of the sensor. As the strip slides in, the sample is subdivided into several smaller samples that drop into tiny wells, or reaction chambers, containing liquid crystals (the same ones in computer displays). Embedded in the liquid crystals in each well is a different antibody so that one card is used to screen for multiple pathogens in a single test.
This article was originally published with the title Seeing the Invisible.