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USF pioneers faster anthrax-detection

“You would rather skin a dead alligator than a live one,” said Andrew Canons, director for USF’s Center for Biological Defense, analogizing CBD’s new anthrax detection process.

The new method may well provide a breakthrough in reducing the excruciating three to four day wait for diagnosis that people exposed to “suspicious substances” currently endure. The process, if adopted by the Florida Department of Health, could reduce the time needed to confirm the presence of anthrax in samples to as little as six to eight hours.

CBD’s proposed method renders potentially deadly samples harmless but leaves intact the spore-protected DNA required to diagnose the presence of anthrax. If implemented, it is hoped the new method will alleviate bottlenecks in the testing system as, once made safe, the sample can be tested in any bio-safety-rated facility. Currently, only three facilities in Florida with the necessary bio-safety level 3 rating possess the necessary protective equipment to test for anthrax. Following last year’s anthrax scares, these facilities were inundated with powders and samples.

Andrew Cannons, CBD director, said the impetus behind the development of the new method was to relieve the level 3 facilities from the labor-intensive DNA analysis, freeing them up to neutralize further samples.

“If you make the samples safe then you speed up the bottlenecks,” Canons said.

Citing the case of a lab technician in Texas who became infected by anthrax, Cannons said the dangers inherent in carrying out the testing were all too apparent. He said their location in the same building as one of three bio-safety level 3 testing facilities had provided an additional incentive to develop the new method.

“We are in the lab right next door and we see (the Department of Health) testing, we don’t want to see them become infected,” Cannons said.

Cannons said the new method received a favorable reaction when presented to the scientific community at an annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in Salt Lake City on May 22. CBD is preparing a publication of the new process for evaluation by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.

“If implemented, (the method) would be a substantial contribution,” Cannons said.

Vicki Ann Luna, a research associate for CBD who headed up the research team, said in a news release that the decrease in testing time would be an important factor in allaying the fears of the general public.

“We found a way to speed up the turnaround of test results,” said Luna. “(The method) would help alleviate the backlog of specimens and the long wait for results that can produce fear and anxiety.”