Retro Reflector Technology Could Aid In Bioterrorism Detection
April 11, 2013

Retro Reflector Technology Could Aid In Bioterrorism Detection

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Most bicycles and many running shoes today are sold with reflective technology that can help ensure that riders/runners are seen at night, but tiny versions of those retro-reflectors could be used to detect bioterrorism threats and even diagnose everyday infectious diseases.

Researchers have found that retro-reflector technology could be capable of detecting pathogens, effectively making the reflectors a mini lab-on-a-chip.

Scientists from the University of Houston, University of Texas and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) have developed an ultra-sensitive, all-in-one device that utilizes tiny versions of retro-reflectors, and these could be used to rapidly tell first-responders exactly which disease-causing microbe has been deployed in a bioterrorism attack, according to ScienceDaily.

These micro-fabricated retro-reflectors feature minute channels that can process small amounts of blood or other fluids, whereby a sample fluid containing bacteria would cause parts of the reflectors to go dark. This would indicate a positive test, whereas if the fluid sample was free of the bacteria or disease-causing virus, the reflectors would shine brightly.

This technology was compiled into a report for the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the America Chemical Society (ACS), which is took place in New Orleans earlier this month.

“Our goal is the development of an ultrasensitive, all-in-one device that can quickly tell first-responders exactly which disease-causing microbe has been used in a bioterrorism attack," said the studies lead researcher Richard Willson, PhD, of the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at University of Houston. “In the most likely kind of attack, large numbers of people would start getting sick with symptoms that could be from multiple infectious agents. But which one? The availability of an instrument capable of detecting several agents simultaneously would greatly enhance our response to a possible bioterror attack or the emergence of a disease not often seen here.”

This breakthrough could allow for faster pathogen detection, which is typically an intricate process that involves extracting blood and labeling nucleic acids with special dyes. All of this requires elaborate instrumentation, along with complex optical equipment and most of all time.

Willson and his fellow researchers have proposed an alternative that could provide more immediate results and one that could be small enough to be carried by first responders or doctors.

The team has been working to develop a version that could be used by doctors and in clinics for rapid, on-site diagnosis of common infectious diseases before a patient is released. This could eliminate the need to wait for test results and could allow patients to get the correct treatment sooner and recover faster. One of the proposed tests could be for detecting the norovirus, which strikes more than 20 million people annually in the United States.

The retro-reflectors could also be used to conduct multiple tests at the same time.

“Right now, we have seven channels in our device,” said Balakrishnan Raja, the member of Willson´s team at the University of Houston, who presented the report at the ACS conference. “So we can test for seven different infections at once, but we could make more channels. That's one of our long-term goals -- to multiplex the device and detect many pathogens at once.”

And while most people may be familiar with the reflectors on the bikes — even if they didn´t know the actual term for the technology — it has been in use for years, and there is even a retro-reflector on the surface of the moon, left by Apollo 11 astronauts. It is still used by scientists to study the moon´s orbit, but closer to home it could help treat illness.