The Anthrax Detector No One Wants

In Berkeley, researchers have found a way to identify deadly spores, which could lead to simple, smoke detector-like devices. So why isn't anyone interested?

The military, however, has developed several anthrax detection models, including the highly sophisticated Portal Shield, a device capable of detecting eight biological agents. The Portal Shield consists of as many as 18 sensors, arrayed around an airfield or building, that can communicate, verify agents, and sound an alarm in unison.

Nelson says he thinks it will be five to 10 years before a private company develops a large-scale anthrax detection sensor, what he calls "generating a whole new thing."

Beyond the monetary concerns, such a kit would need approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the development of all medical devices that diagnose diseases. In addition, scientists would have to perform their research in an approved facility with access to virulent spores of various anthrax strains; not many biotech firms offer those capabilities, which the government fiercely limits and regulates.

Meanwhile, McKinney's patented biomarker has been available for years. Why hasn't anyone jumped at it? As Cheryl Fragiadakis, the head of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's technology transfer office, puts it: "We always find out why people go for things. We almost never find out why they don't."

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