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January 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Emergency first responders such as the RCMP, military and local police could be better equipped to combat terrorism thanks to a new portable device for detecting anthrax. The device, called a biosensor, is being developed under the federal government's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI).

The biosensor can quickly confirm or rule out the presence of anthrax on site by comparing a swab with a sequence of anthrax DNA. "It's very specific and eliminates any inaccuracies caused by contamination from other substances," says Caroline Vachon of the NRC Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI) in Boucherville, Quebec. The technology could also be customized to detect other organisms such as E. coli or Salmonella. "Down the road, it could be adapted for use in agriculture, biofood and the environment," she says.

Image courtesy of I. Summerell, RCMP
Image courtesy of I. Summerell, RCMP

NRC is the lead federal organization in the project, which includes two NRC institutes (the NRC Industrial Materials Institute and the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences), Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Suffield, the Université Laval, the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Québec (CHUQ) and the RCMP.

Over three years, these partners will develop a robust prototype that RCMP officers can test in a field simulation. Ian Summerell of the RCMP says that existing devices don't always take into account the protective gear that first responders must wear when entering a contaminated site. "Some of these devices have small buttons that you can't push when wearing heavy gloves, or screens that you can't read under poor lighting conditions," he says.

" World class people are working together across the federal government and academia — it's a great team."

Ted Sykes, CRTI nuclear-radiological portfolio

The biosensor is one of two NRC-led projects that received the go-ahead from CRTI last summer. The other is a wearable dosimeter that uses real DNA to measure an individual's exposure to radiation. "A DNA-based dosimeter will not only tell us how much radiation a person has absorbed, it will also give us a better feel for how much damage was caused to the person's DNA," says Vachon.

The dosimeter could be used by first responders on the site of a radiological dispersal device or "dirty bomb". It could also be adapted for workers in the nuclear industry or in hospitals where X-ray machines are used.

In addition to NRC, DRDC Ottawa, the Université Laval and CHUQ, the project includes partners from the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston and the Director General Nuclear Safety. The combination of partners was a key factor for CRTI in its decision to support the project. "You've got world class people working together across the federal government and academia," says Ted Sykes, who manages the nuclear-radiological portfolio at CRTI in Ottawa. "It's a great team."

NRC has participated in CRTI projects since 2002, when the program was launched by the federal government to improve Canada's security and counter-terrorism.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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