Marco Bisoffi, PhD Marco Bisoffi, PhD

Pathogens Beware

Awaiting lab results can be an excruciatingly slow experience – particularly in cases of mutating influenza viruses, hantavirus and numerous other known pathogens – not because biomedical laboratories are inefficient, but because culture testing and analyses take time with the available technology.

A team of UNM researchers with help from Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) has developed a biosensor device capable of detecting these and other pathogens' presence within seconds or minutes.

No more imposing than a PDA, the handheld device uses surface acoustic wave technology to convert ligands from antibodies, peptides and/or DNA in solution into identifiable frequency waves. There are both medical and bio-defense environmental-monitoring applications, some perhaps more urgent than others.

Marco Bisoffi, a researcher and assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UNM's School of Medicine, has been on the biosensor project for more than a year. Bisoffi says work originally began on the sensor several years ago to more rapidly detect hantavirus, which first emerged in New Mexico only 15 years ago. More interest and subsequent progress was made on the device after the anthrax scares following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

UNM has developed the detection platform based on crystal materials and electricity. Changes in the crystals caused by introducing the virus are captured in the device and processed through SNL-developed software for real-time feedback. Sandia National Lab also applied its expertise in physics and engineering to fabricate the device.

"The technology is portable, versatile, self-contained, battery driven and capable of detecting multiple viruses or bacteria," Bisoffi explains.

Beyond the critical medical applications in the field during emergencies, point of care access to this technology could open the door to numerous health care applications at the local level. Federal funding from the National Institutes of Health support refining the device's sensitivity, specificity and speed, while developing more applications for specific viruses.

"We're very interested in how this biosensor can be applied to HIV and cancer patients," Bisoffi adds. "It's conceivable that we can confirm and measure timelines of cells through the analysis of patient serum and develop more targeted and effective treatment protocols."

The power of focusing individual and institutional expertise toward a single enterprise is yielding important and practical health care results from UNM's Health Sciences Center, and further underscores both the resources and talent available in New Mexico's biotechnology corridor.

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