Detecting Bioterrorism

The systems designed to collect early-warning biodetection and surveillance data are still sorely lacking, according to two new reports.

The threat of bioterrorism has become a looming national concern. But after an initial furor of activity and government spending in the immediate wake of terrorist events of recent years, the efforts to collect adequate information to prevent a widespread bioterrorist event are coming under increasing scrutiny.

According to two recently released reports, the technology infrastructure underpinning bioterrorism monitoring and surveillance is inadequate.

Technology industry market research firm International Data Corp. argued in a recently released study that as increasingly sophisticated biodetection technology is rolled out it will need to be supported by a complex network to provide adequate early warning capabilities.

Currently available biodetection devices are not sophisticated enough to require a large amount of data collection and analysis. The installation of a national biomonitoring early warning system is the province of BioWatch, a Department of Homeland Security program.

Last year, BioWatch installed a biomonitoring system by Cepheid in 15 United States Postal Service pilot sites across the country in both metropolitan and rural settings. But the deployment of the Cepheid detection systems has been delayed as of April because of inconclusive test results. This coincided with the granting of 14 research awards by the Department of Homeland Security for the next generation of early warning biodetectors. Research grants went to companies including Pleasanton, Calif. -based MicroFluidic System Inc.; Nanolytics Inc. of Raleigh, N.C.; and U.S. Genomics Inc. of Woburn, Mass.

Current biodetection technology requires DNA amplification, taking a small sample and replicating it until its large enough for analysis. This process requires a lag time of about 20 minutes. Technologies under development will be much faster, since they do not require DNA amplification.

For example, a device from U.S. Genomics will interrogate individual molecules such as DNA, RNA, microRNA or protein as they pass through a microfluidic channel attached to a sensor. This device is capable of analyzing individual DNA molecules up to 1 million bases in length at a rate of 30 million bases per second, which could potentially analyze an air sample in minutes.

As biodetection becomes increasingly sophisticated, it will require a more extensive information technology infrastructure to support it. IDC argues that the growing volume and increasing complexity of data will necessitate a large-scale IT infrastructure that will need to combine centralized and decentralized approaches to data processing.

In addition to a rapidly evolving biodetection system, the surveillance by health care professionals of illnesses and syndromes potentially related to bioterrorism is also in desperate need of an upgrade. Thats according to a paper published in the June issue of the academic journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which presented an evaluation of the current systems in place to collect this type of data.

Of the 115 systems that collect this type of data, only three have been evaluated for accuracy and only two have been examined in studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

"Given the striking lack of information on the timeliness, sensitivity and specificity, and ability of systems to facilitate decision making, clinicians and public health officials deploying these systems do so with little scientific evidence to guide them," the study authors concluded.