As reported by the Associated Press, February 5, 2004.

UConn Scientists Developing Bacteria Detection Device

FARMINGTON, Conn. -- Jay Glasel envisions a day when supermarket employees will be able to scan meat packages to determine whether the food is contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

That may happen soon, as Glasel, an emeritus biochemistry professor, and his team of scientists at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington are developing a prototype device that would detect bacteria.

For almost a year, Glasel and five other scientists have been researching ways to develop an inexpensive food pathogen detector. Such a detector would not only help prevent the spread of an epidemic, but also warn of terrorism attacks that target food.

"At the present time," Glasel says, "the only way an epidemic shows up is when a lot of people show up at the hospital - and it's usually a long time after they've been exposed to the infection. In a wartime scenario, that's a disaster."

In 1993, three children in Washington state died and several hundred people became ill after eating hamburgers contaminated with a potentially lethal strain of E. coli bacteria at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant.

In the 1980s, a cult in Oregon wanted to take over local government and used salmonella to poison salad bars at 10 restaurants, causing more than 700 people to become ill.

"People start showing up at hospitals, and it may be five or six days after they start having symptoms," which may be too late to cure them, Glasel says.

The Oregon case also proves that it is fairly easy to replicate a pathogen and use it to contaminate food, Glasel warns. Cult members did it without any special training - just simple microbiology.

While it's good that the public is becoming more aware of pathogens and the dangers they can present, Glasel says, it's also a "double-edged sword" when that knowledge is used for criminal purposes.

"You can think of a doomsday scenario," he adds. "There are certainly no secret tools in microbiology."

Glasel's research is being funded by a two-year, $3 million grant via the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. The grant was awarded to Maine-based Sensor Research and Development Corp., which designs detectors for chemical gases.

Sensor President Carl Freeman says Glasel began working on pathogen detection for the company as a consultant. But after winning the grant, company officials realized they needed a research hospital for the project.

Having established a working relationship with Glasel, Sensor officials decided the UConn Health Center was "a natural fit," Freeman says. The company needed expertise in biology, microbiology, and biochemistry - all of which the health center has, he says.

Sensor is leasing about 4,000 square feet of office and laboratory space at the health center. The space became available under UConn's small-business incubator program, which is geared to help startup technology companies.

Glasel, whom Sensor hired as its director of biotechnology at the health center, says the detection device would work much like price scanners do at grocery stores. An employee or a customer would pass the food under the device, which would indicate whether the product was contaminated.

The device also could be used at processing plants and distribution centers.

The military also is interested in having such a device, especially for overseas operations, because it usually purchases local produce, Glasel says.

He estimated the device would cost "a few thousand dollars."

Glasel's team, however, is only developing the device. Another company would manufacture it, he says.

But while the device is important, Glasel says improved communication between hospitals and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is significant. Hospitals need to report more rapidly to other hospitals when it appears an epidemic is developing, he warns, predicting that hospitals in a few years will begin sending computerized reports to the CDC when patients are infected with pathogens.

In addition, Glasel says he believes global positioning systems, or GPS, which use signals from satellites to determine location, will be used to help locate the source of the problem and improve coordination among emergency response agencies.

Meanwhile, Sensor has won grants for two other projects, from the Office of Naval Research, totaling $3 million. One project focuses on detecting pathogens in water, while the other involves research into the other detection of infectious diseases, such as anthrax, in humans via a medical diagnostic instrument.

Glasel expects work on those projects will start in about a month, with three more scientists being hired.

Glasel and Freeman say they expect research into pathogenic detection to continue to grow.

Researchers at UConn's Storrs and Avery Point campuses are testing how well ion scanners used to detect explosives and drugs at airport checkpoints can find pathogens in food.

But Glasel says people should not let their lives be ruined by the potential for a terrorism attack via infected food.

"It's a reality we just have to face," he says. "If you let it take over your life, you might as well lock yourself in a cave."

Copyright (c) 2004, The Associated Press