Canadian chip to stalk killer germs

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last month awarded $2 million to a Canadian consortium in an ongoing effort to develop a microchip-based device that would offer soldiers and medical technicians a simpler quicker and more portable way to test if they are being attacked by killer germs used in biological warfare.

The device which has no formal name but has been dubbed "DNA on a chip " amounts to a miniaturized biological laboratory on a microchip. As envisioned the chip would include a network of tiny tubes and use electrical impulses to move around all the materials needed to test the deadly microorganisms that are used in biological warfare according to Frank Holler chief executive officer of ID Biomedical Corp. Vancouver British Columbia whose technology is being used in the project.

The chip will continually process the air analyzing particles for bacteria viruses and toxins commonly used in biological warfare. Eventually DARPA hopes to develop information technology systems that will remotely send the results in digital form to DOD labs.

Goal: Faster Safer Biological TestsThe microchip development is one part of DARPA's larger microfluidic molecular systems program which involves disciplines ranging from software and microelectronics to chemistry and molecular biology. A goal of the program is to develop an automated device that would offer biological test results quickly and in digital form according to DARPA. The chip also would be controlled digitally and possibly remotely to keep people as far out of harm's way as possible.

"The microfluidic molecular systems are envisioned to be palm-sized and smaller and are expected to improve battlefield awareness by providing access to new realms of molecular-level information regarding environmental conditions health hazards and physiological states " according to a World Wide Web document posted by DARPA's Electronics Technology Office.

The Canadian technology consortium that won the award includes the Defence Research Establishment Ralston Alberta the chemistry department at the University of Alberta the Alberta Microelectronic Centre Canada West Biosciences Calgary Alberta and Dycor Industrial Research Edmonton Alberta. A DARPA spokeswoman said the foreign consortium was chosen to work on the project after full and open competition. The consortium "met the parameters of the broad agency announcement when we put that out " she said.

"The primary objective of this project is to develop a simple rapid automated microchip-based system for the detection of biological warfare agents which could be used in the field " said ID Biomedical vice president Robert Bryan in a statement late last month when the company announced that its technology had been chosen for the project.

Bryan said the technology could be used in other nonmilitary applications. "This would allow gene-based testing to move from reference laboratories to hospital laboratories small laboratories and even the physician's office " he said.

Amy E. Smithson director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation project at the Henry L. Stimson Center a public policy research center in Washington D.C. said "There is definitely a need for such a device.... And the need is not just for the troops. I don't think we can ignore the fact that a terrorist can get their hands on a chemical or biological weapon."

For example Smithson said a terrorist flying a crop-duster can drop deadly germs on a national capital. Tourists would become infected with a killer organism such as anthrax which can take days to incubate and carry the disease back to their home towns.

Detecting deadly germs therefore becomes an issue of speed and mobility. The hope is that the device DARPA is pushing to develop will bring both of those features!

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