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Improved Anthrax Detection from NASA

Space age technology is playing a role in the war on terror. Paul Sisco reports on a device developed by the U.S. space agency, NASA, that detects anthrax, which can be used as a biological weapon.

Anthrax … most Americans first learned of the killer disease shortly after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, when bacterial spores turned up in letters mailed to government offices and newspapers in the United States. The anthrax killed at least five Americans and infected others.

Researcher Amir Ettehadieh says a contaminated building has widespread implications. "A little amount of anthrax could contaminate a whole building like the Hart Senate [Office] Building, and we saw a lot of deaths coming from these anthrax attacks, so as far as anthrax goes, a little amount could cause a lot of death."

Dr. Andrian Ponce how anthrax was discovered. “When the anthrax attacks occurred the only way that we found out about them was that we observed people getting sick, and of course, that is not a very good way of monitoring this, the sort of canary approach."

Dr. Adrian Ponce works for NASA, the US space agency. He was part of a team of chemists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which was developing a device for preventing the contamination of spacecraft traveling on Mars and in outer space.

They realized the device they were testing might have applications on Earth -- detecting anthrax. "It works great. We got it to work in our first try in 2002 with a simple and cheap system and since then we've been working with this company to develop a commercial prototype incorporating their air sampler."

NASA is partnered with Universal Detection Technology, a public company that assists in marketing and improving the device, which looks like a smoke detector. Placed in large vents, it samples the air every fifteen minutes. Spores found are quickly heated and broken open for analysis. Chemical sensors turn a solution bright green if anthrax is present and then trigger an alarm. It all takes place in less than fifteen minutes. Fast enough, NASA says, to prevent widespread contamination and save lives.

Dr. Ponce adds, "We don't just want to develop technology -- we want to apply it and have it be useful for a lot of people."

There are other anthrax detectors on the market, but NASA says the one it developed is among the smallest, quickest and cheapest.