UT Research Combats Anthrax Threat

KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee researchers are battling the anthrax threat by developing new, improved ways to detect it, kill it, and prepare samples for testing.

Dr. Steve Ripp of UT’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology is doing research for NASA to detect and remove pathogens in the air of spacecraft.

Ripp combines tiny computer chips with a genetically engineered, virus-like organism that infects harmful bacteria.

The virus initiates a reaction that emits light when it infects the bacteria. The chip detects the light and can send a warning signal or trigger a mechanism to kill the bacteria.

Ripp is testing the technology on E. Coli and other bacteria. It could work on anthrax, he said.

“One of our main goals now is detection of Bacillus anthracis, which produces anthrax,” Ripp said. “The military recently has become a lot more interested in our research. They would like to see this research done, and they have kind of jumped on it now.

“We are drafting a report on our research. Hopefully, they can provide funding for our research.”

Conventional testing such as growing cultures or DNA testing can take days to get results, is expensive and requires several trained technicians, Ripp said.

Ripp said the UT technology would be faster, cheaper, and simpler. Chips thrown into a water supply or placed in an air vent could detect and kill harmful bacteria in a few hours. They might even be injected into the bloodstream to detect infection, he said.

“What the military likes about this system is that anyone can do it,” Ripp said. “Any soldier can throw these chips into a water supply and test it. There is no training needed. You don’t have to be a scientist to do it.”

Dr. David Nivens, another researcher at the UT center, has a subcontract through the U.S. Army to develop a device he calls a nucleic acid extractor.

The machine, about the size of a computer CPU, takes about half an hour to trap nucleic acid from contaminants in water or soil, Nivens said.

The nucleic acid can then be tested immediately by conventional means. The technology eliminates the need for trained technicians, reduces by several days the time needed to grow a lab culture and cuts risk of samples being contaminated from handling.

It also could allow many different contaminants to be detected at once and eliminate the chance of harmful bacteria growing in a water source during the days it takes to determine test results, he said.

“This method avoids culturing,” Nivens said. “It is much quicker, taking maybe an hour prep time as opposed to as much as five days,” Nivens said.

The nucleic acid method could be combined with Ripp’s bioluminescent technology to create a one-two punch against anthrax, Nivens said.

“The two projects we are working on could form a very complementary system,” Nivens said. “You can look at it like an arsenal of weapons to combat this stuff.”

Nivens said he hopes to have a prototype device completed by November. He said his work has taken on an added sense of urgency since the recent anthrax scare.

“A lot of this was done before Sept. 11, but it could apply towards other pathogens,” Nivens said. “Obviously, that is always in the back of our minds.

“If this technology can help, you want to get it out there as fast as possible. You don’t want to have some catastrophic event and realize a year down the road you could have prevented it. So we’re working as hard as we can.”