Officials at the Mayo Clinic in the Midwest U.S. state of Minnesota say they have developed a faster way to test for anthrax exposure. The clinic's test reportedly detects anthrax in less than an hour, but it has not yet been tested on humans.

The Mayo Clinic maintains the key to saving lives in an anthrax attack is to quickly determine the bacteria's presence, and says its new test does just that. Mayo microbiologist Franklin Cockerill calls this a significant breakthrough in the fight against anthrax. "First, it will bring rapid DNA testing to the local level with no need to wait for samples to be transported to a distant laboratory," he said. "Second, it will allow physicians to begin treating patients who have been exposed in a more timely fashion. And, third, it will more quickly alleviate undue anxiety for people who have not been exposed " The Mayo Clinic is working with a Swiss-based health research company, Roche Diagnostics, to put the new test in kit form and distribute it to regional and local health departments in the United States.

The test works by magnifying a person's DNA and closely examining it. Dr. Cockerill says the test has been accurate in laboratory trials it has detected as few as five anthrax bacteria in a single DNA sample. "The other part of accuracy is that you do not want to say something is anthrax when it isn't," he said. "That is a false positive. In the laboratory, we have had no false positive results."

But so far, the new test has not been tried on people. Officials at the clinic say they are confident the test will be just as accurate once it is used on members of the public possibly exposed to anthrax.

Roche Diagnostics is working with the U.S. government on expedited regulatory approval.