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Spring 2005 - Web Story 4

Destination Purdue > Spring 2005 - Web Story 4

Virus detector could help save lives

By Stephanie K. Miller

Purdue University researchers Steve Broyles and Rashid Bashir have developed a device that detects smallpox, a potentially fatal virus that could infect thousands if an outbreak occurs. Their device is a “cantilever” that measures the weight of a virus through vibrations. When a virus lands on the cantilever, the vibrations change. This change tells scientists like Broyles and Bashir which virus is present in the atmosphere.

“The goal is to use it in public places and look for an increase of the virus,” said Bashir, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smallpox is highly infectious and can be fatal. Outbreaks have occurred periodically for thousands of years, but the last known case in the United States was reported in 1949 and the last known natural case was reported in Somalia in 1977, according to the CDC Web site. The main concern is that smallpox could be used as a biological weapon.

Smallpox spreads when infected people sneeze or cough. In public spaces, those infected could rapidly and easily spread the virus through the atmosphere. An infected person could step off a plane cough and infect other people said Broyles, a biochemistry professor.

Eventually, the device Broyles and Bashir created will be used to detect virus particles in the air in "real time." This will enable Broyles and Bashir to identify smallpox and other viruses while they are floating in the atmosphere, allowing for earlier detection and a faster response that could prevent potential outbreaks.

As Bashir refines the cantilever, Broyles continues to research other strands of the pox virus family, which includes smallpox. The better he understands the pox viruses’ characteristics and functions, the faster he and Bashir can detect them in the atmosphere. For Broyles, this has not been an easy task.

Initially, Broyles thought the pox virus behaved like healthy cells during the early stages of maturity in the body. However, his research revealed the virus steals information and infects normal cells.

The genes in infected human cells are directly regulated by the pox virus which can shut down functioning cells. This makes treating the disease difficult. No one knows how to stop it, but it is an easy way to shut a person’s system down, Broyles said.

The smallpox virus is not allowed in the United States, but the use of viruses as a weapon is a concern. Bashir said the device could detect biological attacks by terror groups.