DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is time for the next installment of Joe's Big Idea from NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Today, he visits with scientists in Albuquerque who say a new test could stop terrorists in Afghanistan from getting their hands on anthrax.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Sandia National Lab is home for the International Biological Threat Reduction program.
MELISSA FINLEY: Our interest is in, basically, safety and security of pathogens.
PALCA: That's Melissa Finley. She's not a bio-weapons expert. She's a veterinarian. But veterinarians know about anthrax because it's caused by bacteria that lives in soil and can infect livestock. So veterinary labs have to be able to test for it. Sandia sends vets like Finley to countries around the world to make sure their tests are done in a secure manner and the anthrax doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
FINLEY: My country happens to be Afghanistan.
PALCA: Finley says Afghanistan has a curious problem when it comes to anthrax. The country is a big exporter of animal hides. But she says these hides can be contaminated with bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria. Exporters would like to test to prove their hides aren't.
FINLEY: If they can certify them free of bacillus anthracis spores, then they get more money for the hide.
PALCA: For the most reliable test, you have to grow the bacteria. But the United States worries a bunch of labs in Afghanistan growing the anthrax bacteria isn't conducive to biological threat reduction.
FINLEY: So we were working with them to try to identify an alternate method.
PALCA: She went back to New Mexico and told Sandia engineers she needed a test that would only require a tiny sample that would be destroyed when the test was over.
FINLEY: And the microfluidics guys were, like, yeah, we could make a microculture chamber. And we could then connect it to a lateral flow assay.
PALCA: In non-engineer speak - they made a credit card-sized device. A sample first goes into a tiny growth chamber where any bacteria in the sample can divide a few times. Then, the sample goes into a test chamber.
FINLEY: Wait for roughly 15 minutes and you get a color change, whether it's positive or negative, similar to what you might see in a pregnancy test.
PALCA: And then, a powerful antiseptic chemical destroys the bacteria - nothing for terrorists to steal. It'll be a few years before the test is ready for primetime. But if it works as advertised, it should make the world a safer place. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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