JIM LEHRER: Yesterday, the FBI extended its high alert against possible new terrorism assaults. The agency told police forces nationwide the alert would remain in effect through March 11. While that security effort goes on, a scientific effort is under way as well. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The need for anthrax detection devices became obvious with the first anthrax cases in this country. There are devices that can be taken into this field like this machine used by the Chicago firefighter's hazardous material team. HAZMAT technician Sylvester Hudson says a sample of a suspicious substance is placed on a slide then inserted into the machine. Positive or negative results are available within two minutes. But the results are not 100 percent accurate.
SYLVESTER HUDSON, Chicago Fire Department: There is always that margin of error, maybe a false positive. Since I'm not a chemist it's not for me to determine. If it shows up positive on here, then we make the proper notifications with the federal agencies and then they step in and do a more accurate test.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That more accurate test means having the sample cultured in a lab. It takes at least three days to determine if it contains the bacteria that causes anthrax. But now, scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, say they have developed a much more rapid anthrax detection test. Physician and scientist Franklin Cockerill:
DR. FRANK COCKERILL, Mayo Clinic: It is a very reliable test but it can be done rather quickly and people who think they have been exposed, who open up an envelope that has material in it that might be anthrax, they'll be able to find out much more quickly if they have been exposed.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The new test uses PCR, or polymerse chain reaction technology, to detect the DNA of anthrax bacteria. Multiple copies of the DNA can then be made from an extremely small sample. Molecular probes are used to determine if the DNA matches that of the anthrax organism.
DR. FRANK COCERILL: We want to provide this test to every qualified laboratory as soon as possible and we're doing that at no cost.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At Argonne National Laboratory west of Chicago microbiologist Harvey Drucker has been developing an even more advanced method of using DNA analysis to detect biological threats. This small biochip works by essentially speed reading an organism's DNA.
HARVEY DRUCKER: This a biochip. You can see all those squares contain hundreds, indeed in some cases, thousands of little gel elements. Each one of these little squares you've got maybe 1,500 or so little dots containing DNA That are meant to react with other DNAS. Eventually we'll have the chips set up to look for things like anthrax, the organism that causes anthrax.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Unlike the Mayo detection device that identifies just anthrax, the Argonne bio chip can be programed to identify any biological organ simple that causes disease from smallpox to the Ebola virus. The rapid diagnostic capabilities of the biochip works the same way on any organism with DNA.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: We have the substance they found in Florida, say on a computer key. What could do you with it?
HARVEY DRUCKER: You would take a swab, or would you take the substance itself. You would put it into something that would be like this black box, if we had it available. You would close it. The device would do all of the various extractions that are needed to get the sample prepared. It would expose the slide to the sample. The sample would then, after an appropriate amount of time in order to get reaction, would then glow or not glow.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The DNA Information can then be read on a computer. The way the dots glow will identify the anthrax or other organism. Drucker says the pressure to get the device ready has increased since September 11.
HARVEY DRUCKER, Argonne National Laboratory: What has changed is what we were working on was a battlefield detector, okay, which would make a very limited number of copies, you know, that you don't really care about the expense. And now clearly either for clinical analyzers or for field detectors that can be used in airports or waiting rooms or subway tunnels or whatever, or buildings in general.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The biochip would be particularly useful in subway systems where chemical or biological agents could spread quickly both below and above the ground. Argonne scientists have been working on computer models to deal with an attack on the nation's subways. Tom Wolsko heads the Decision Information Sciences Division at Argonne.
TOM WOLSKO, Argonne National Laboratory: Models that predict, once a sensor determines there's an agent in that area, where that agent might go within the subway system or the ventilation systems, and then to communicate to appropriate command centers and first responders what might be the best course of action.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Washington D.C. Metro system is testing Argonne's model. Sensors are in place and plumes of smoke have been tracked through the system.
TOM WOLSKO: Once we know or can predict where the plume will go in a certain time frame, then we can take corrective actions in the subway systems to either shut down the trains, close ventilation systems. So it's all the things you would do in the operation of the subway system in order to minimize exposure to the agent on the part of the population.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This Argonne computer model of a fictional town shows the impact of an unnamed biological agent. The plume spreads first through the subway system and above ground from the various entrances and exits with no detection system in place for an hour. This worst-case scenario model predicts 7795 people would die. With the detection system in place, subway trains would be shut down within 15 minutes, lessening the spread and cutting the death toll to 1544. And if those exposed were treated, Argonne says the death toll could drop to as low as 300. The detector used in subways and other public places would ultimately be about the size of a smoke detector and cost around $100. Drucker says the basic science on the chip is done, but there is still work to do on the collection and computer analysis parts of the device. Argonne has received new funding with the promise of more to come since September 11. But right now they say none of these new systems could be in place for one to two years.