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Mayo develops quicker anthrax test
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
November 5, 2001
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Researchers at Rochester's Mayo Clinic have developed a new DNA test that identifies anthrax samples in less than an hour. Up to now, it took labs several days to identify the presence of anthrax.

Dr. Franklin Cockerill, left, headed the project at Mayo that developed a new anthrax test. Dr. Jurgen Flach, right, general manager of Roche Molecular Biochemicals, says the test will initially be free.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)

The test is able to identify anthrax in human blood samples and in environmental samples like powder. Franklin Cockerill, is a microbiologist at Mayo and the lead researcher on the project. He says the test will give results in about half an hour.

The Mayo team worked with Roche Diagnostics, a Swiss health care research company. They plan to provide the tests to 24 laboratories around the country.

Cockerill says Mayo had been working with Roche Diagnostics for years on similar rapid testing for viruses like strep throat. Since September 11, the team shifted its focus to bioterrorist agents like anthrax.

"They've been working 20 - as one said, 25 - hours a day on fast forward. Once the events occured in early September, we completely focused all our activities to this project."

Cockerill says this new test is based on existing analysis called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction. PCR tests DNA by creating copies of DNA into quantities large enough to analyze.

Cockerill brought together some of Mayo's research with technology provided by Roche. That allowed the study team to shorten the turnaround time for a PCR test - from more than two days to around half an hour. He says the change has also made the test more accurate.

According to Cockerill, the original PCR test required one probe of the tested DNA to verify a positive result. The new test has more stringent requirements.

"In this test to be a postive result, we have to have four probes showing positivity. That amplifies our concern about being certain that what we have is anthrax, and we don't give a false report of anthrax," says Cockerill. The tests will be available at some labs by the end of this week, according to Roche Diagnostics Vice President Juergen Flach. Flach says 24 labs, including one at Mayo Clinic, will have at least 100 test kits by mid-December.

Flach says Roche will initially offer the tests for free. But sometime next year, they plan to start charging from $50 to $60 per test.

Both Flach and Cockerill acknowledged the Center for Disease Control's current development of an anthrax test is based on similar technology. Flach says they hope to work in parallel to the CDC's efforts, not in competition with them.

"Another reason we are starting to produce this kit is because we are a health care provider," Flach said. "We have a network, infrastructure and distribution system not only in the U.S., but also worldwide. And as some of you are aware, there are anthrax cases coming up not only in the U.S."

Officials at the CDC were not available for comment. The research team won't publish research results because of what Cockerill calls national security concerns. He assures skeptics although the test hasn't been used on anyone yet, it will be effective in an actual case.

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