Iowa State researchers developing technology to detect weapons of mass destruction

AMES, Iowa -- Robert Lipert has developed a technology that can detect a single spore of simulated anthrax or a single bacterium cell of simulated plague.

But now the trick will be to figure out a way to capture and detect a spore or cell in something as big as a city's water supply. Lipert is seeing if electrical fields can move and concentrate those simulated weapons of mass destruction.

Lipert is not working with actual weapons of mass destruction, but with harmless spores and bacteria that act like anthrax and plague.

Lipert, an associate scientist for Iowa State's Institute for Combinatorial Discovery, is working on the project with Concurrent Analytical Inc., of Waimanalo, Hawaii. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a U.S. Department of Defense research and development agency. Lipert's share of the grant is $200,000.

Lipert has worked in a Spedding Hall laboratory since last summer with chemistry professor Marc Porter and graduate students Hye-Young Park, Jeremy Driskell, Betsy Jean Yakes, Jill Uhlenkamp and Deepak Dibya to detect simulated weapons of mass destruction using a technology called surface enhanced Raman scattering. The technology involves shining a laser beam on a substance, analyzing how the light is scattered and using a spectrometer to look for molecular labels that indicate biological weapons.

Lipert said researchers are hoping to develop technology that could be used to monitor drinking water supplies or coastal waters for biological weapons.

Chris Schoen, the president of Concurrent Analytical Inc., said his company's role in the project is to develop instruments that would detect weapons of mass destruction. But he said the applications of Lipert's research and his company's instruments aren't limited to weapons detection.

He said the technology could also be used to detect viruses or cancers in patients.

And Schoen said the research has gone well so far.

"We've proven our ability to test for these nasties," he said.

Schoen said the technology could be used to monitor for weapons of mass destruction in a few years. He also said it's likely to be a few years before the technology can be used in medical testing.

Lipert said current tests for weapons of mass destruction are slow and involve lab work. He said the developing technology should decrease analysis time and increase testing sensitivity.

This is not the first time Lipert, Porter and Concurrent Analytical Inc. have cooperated on a project. They won a prestigious R&D 100 Award in 2003 for the Ramanprobes System they developed. The technology detects and labels the proteins that serve as the body's natural defense against infectious agents. The team also has support from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for a project led by Porter that applies some of the same technology to the detection of viruses and toxins.

The Institute for Combinatorial Discovery is one of six presidential initiatives at Iowa State. Combinatorial science uses a parallel process to quickly screen hundreds of possible solutions to complex problems.