In the Spotlight

News & Features
Mayo develops new test for bioterrorism agents
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
July 9, 2002

Scientists and government officials say U.S. communities should be prepared for a possible bio-terrorist attack. A vital component of those preparations is being able to test for smallpox and other viruses. Currently only two laboratories in the United States are equipped to analyze specimens from such an attack. Now, researchers at Rochester's Mayo Clinic have developed a more convenient way for local clinics to detect agents that could be used in a bioterrorist attack.

Researcher Mark Espy opens an autoclave at Rochester's Mayo Clinic. Espy was one of five researchers at the Mayo who completed the autoclave study.
(MPR photo/Rob Schmitz )

Smallpox, plague and botulism are just a few of the viruses that could be released in a bioterrorist attack. Currently the only places capable of testing for exposure to these agents are the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and a US Army facility in Maryland.

Now, researchers at Rochester's Mayo clinic say they've found a new way to test for exposure to these agents, without sending the samples across the country.

They are using a machine commonly found in clinics and dentist offices around the country: the autoclave. It is normally used in clinics to sterilize surgical equipment. It could become the latest tool in the war on terrorism.

In the July issue of "Mayo Clinic Proceedings," researchers report successfully using the autoclave to kill what they call a virus's "infectivity" without affecting the DNA needed to identify the virus. The process makes it much safer to handle the samples, eliminating the need to send samples of suspected viruses to CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

The Mayo Clinic's Franklin Cockerill says the common availability of the autoclave will allow diagnosis to be done by a wider range of qualified labs.

"If that clinician is suspicious that this is something like smallpox," says Cockerill, "then the diagnosis has to be done to confirm that. And this technology, the autoclaving, permits that to be done safely at a more local level."

Cockerill's research team injected cell cultures with a series of deadly viruses and bacteria, including a cousin to the smallpox virus. After the team autoclaved the samples, they found the agents lost their infectivity but retained their DNA, making it possible for them to safely identify them with 100% accuracy.

Mayo researchers say using the autoclave in a bioterrorism attack would cut down the turn-around time for identifying viruses from a few days to around three hours.

But before local clinics can begin training to use this new method, Cockerill says the federal government needs to be involved.

"What we're looking for from the government with these new findings is perhaps some guidance or guidelines whereby one could then safely test at a more local site using DNA testing methods after autoclaving," says Cockerill.

CDC officials were unavailable to comment for this report, but Cockerill says the CDC officials he has spoken to were open to creating new guidlines to determine where and how the new testing method should be used.