Army Uses Columbia Firm's Anthrax Test In Saudi Arabia

October 21, 1990|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

For scientists at a biotechnology firm in Columbia, it was graduate school all over again.

The lights in the lab burned 24 hours in midsummer as the staff at New Horizons Diagnostics Corp. pulled numerous all-nighter sessions to perfect a testing kit now being used by U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia to detect the presence of a biological weapon.

Last June, the company signed a contract to supply the U.S. Army with biological detection systems.

"In mid-July, we got a call from Fort Detrick saying they needed everything done within three weeks to ship the kits out in August," said Larry Loomis, president of New Horizons.

The kit, which fits into a one-foot square box, enables Army medical personnel to quickly test soldiers for the anthrax virus, part of Iraq's arsenal of biological weapons.

The disease causes hemorrhaging in humans and cattle and is often fatal if not treated.

"It's the perfect covert weapon," Loomis said. "It could be administered through the head of a rocket or through an aerosol."

Although the Army has contracted with other companies to develop testing kits for biological weapons, New Horizons' kit is the only one now being used in Saudi Arabia, Loomis said.

"The technology behind the development of these tests is validated by their utilization by the Army," Loomis said.

The technology had been in the making since 1985, when New Horizons began developing a test to diagnose strep throat infections in five minutes.

New Horizons has applied the basic format of the "Smart" test technology to develop the test for anthrax and other diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis. The company is currently working to develop similar tests for colon cancer and a respiratory virus.

Other "rapid" tests are on the market, but most require twice the time as the "Smart" tests and a number of complex steps.

"We have the simplest test of this kind," Loomis said. "It took five years to develop the technology and now it has many applications.

"That's why we were able to go from a strep test to doing a test for the Army in three weeks," he said.

New Horizons scientists teamed up with their Army counterparts at the firm's Columbia lab to develop the anthrax test.

If a soldier shows symptoms of the disease -- usually a general feeling of malaise -- Army field medical technicians can use the diagnostic test kits to determine if the soldier has been exposed to the anthrax virus.

To administer the test, the technician dips a cotton swab into a soldier's blood sample and lodges the cotton swab in a small plastic packet, which exposes the sample to antibodies that fight the disease.

Within a half hour, the results appear. The appearance of a pinprick-size red dot in the packet means that the antibodies have picked up the disease in the sample.

"You can get sick by inhaling or ingesting a few spores (containing the anthrax virus) and it can kill within five days," Loomis said. "That's why it's important to have these types of detection systems." Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics and vaccines.

The Army is paying $20 for each kit. Due to the classified nature of the information, Loomis could not say how many testing kits have been shipped out to the Persian Gulf or whether any of the test results have been positive.

"All of a sudden I feel like I'm working for the CIA," he said.

Despite the under-wraps elements of working with the military to develop the anthrax identification test kit, Loomis said the project was a model cooperative effort.

"It's a perfect combination of government and industry working together to get the job done," he said. "No red tape, no bureaucracy, no pride of authorship -- just getting the product out was the important thing."

New Horizons had its beginnings 10 years ago in the basement of Loomis' home in Columbia. The firm now has 30 employees at its office on Red Branch Road in the Long Reach village.

In addition to its partnership with the U.S. Army, New Horizons is trying to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to sell the strep test over the counter.

Under a $50,000 NASA grant, company researchers are modifying the strep tests so they can be used in "zero-gravity" conditions.

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