[ASC-media] Media release: early warning on bio-terrorism

Julian Cribb Julian.Cribb at uts.edu.au
Mon Mar 29 21:24:47 EST 2004

CRCA Media Release 04/15

March 30, 2004


An Australian research team has announced substantial progress in the race to develop early-warning tests for the lethal diseases and toxins that could possibly be used in an attack by bio-terrorists.

Professor Ian Gardner, Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Diagnostics says that the team has developed the capability to rapidly identify a number of possible bio-terrorism agents, such as smallpox, anthrax, botulinum and salmonella.

"When a lethal disease has been released into the community, there's no time for traditional laboratory-based diagnostic methods taking several days," Prof Gardner warns. 

"The diagnosis has to happen before the disease gets a foothold. If possible, even before any symptoms can be seen," he says. 

"Diagnostic testing is now being taken out of the laboratory and right to the place of the suspected outbreak, so immediate action can be taken to protect the community’s health and safety."

The team – from the Diagnostics CRC and Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) – is also working on ways to identify potentially new and unknown strains of lethal bioweapons.

"Just as computer hackers try and develop 'viruses' that are ahead of existing defence strategy, we have to assume that bio-terrorists may be genetically modifying diseases and pathogens in quite unexpected ways, and be prepared for them," he says.

"Even without the agency of bio-terrorists, modern international travel has made it extremely difficult to restrict epidemic infectious diseases, such as SARS, to their countries of origin," he says. 

"Australia will need to be continually vigilant, and have its own armoury of rapid tests so we can seal off any outbreak before it takes hold," he says.

Professor Gardner says that the Diagnostics CRC research effort is focussed on using cutting-edge biotechnology to diagnose potential threats on the spot.

This may involve methods such as high throughput flow cytometry and high-sensitivity signal generation and capture, for rapid quantitative assays.

"Biosensors with great sensitivity are now being developed," he says. "We need tests where just a few molecules of an infectious disease agent or a toxin in a sample taken from a patient is enough to alert the system to the presence of the threat, allowing early and rapid preventative measures to be taken."

Professor Gardner says the Australian research is being carried out in an atmosphere of international collaboration, with regular exchanges of information at meetings such as the American Society of Microbiology's biodefense meeting in April. At the same time many Western countries are pursuing their own diagnostic tests for bio-terrorism agents.

He expects that state-of-the-art diagnostic technology - at present confined to research and public health organisations - will become routine clinical testing within a decade.

"As a CRC, we are developing diagnostic tests for a commercial purpose," says Professor Gardner, "but at the same time there is a strong 'public good' element in our work and we identify strongly with the Government's stated National Research Priority of 'Safeguarding Australia'."

The CRC is taking a two-pronged approach to the urgent need for high-efficiency diagnostic procedures. Research is identifying large numbers of marker molecules which can betray the presence of a pathogen often before it shows any visible effects. 

A parallel research push is the development and utilisation of 'libraries' of proteins, peptides and novel binding agents associated with known and still-unknown diseases.

"Emerging diseases demand a suite of new 'markers' and tests," says Professor Gardner. "Novel organisms such as SARS, the Hendra virus, the Nipah virus, have demanded the immediate deployment of diagnostic tests, some of which have been developed within our CRC.

"Other familiar pathogens such as anthrax have long had standard diagnostic procedures - but there is a fresh urgency to develop rapid diagnostic tests when one strain has already been used as a bio-terrorism agent.

"You can't sit around and wait for days for a microbiology laboratory to confirm that it’s anthrax," he says. 

"We are developing biosensors which can detect the organism even before anyone even becomes ill, enabling us to take steps to protect others who might have been exposed before they become symptomatic."

Professor Gardner cautions that people living a so-called 'Western' life-style may be more susceptible to invasive diseases than traditional rural communities.

The research addresses National Research Priorities 2 and 4 - promoting and maintaining good health and safeguarding Australia.

More information from:
Professor Ian Gardner, CRC for Diagnostics			07-3864 4015
								0439 899 867
Wendy Murphy, CRC for Diagnostics				07-3864 5175	
Nick Goldie, CRCA Media						02 6235 9190

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