Newswise — Biosensors developed at the University of South Florida lab of Luis Garcia-Rubio, a chemical engineer at the university's College of Marine Science, can detect infectious diseases in blood and bodily fluids as well as identify pathogenic microorganisms in contaminated water. The new sensors could be our most effective future frontline defense against diseases emerging after disasters such as the recent tsunami, as well as help reduce the every day, annual rates of illness and deaths caused by contaminated water and unsanitary conditions world-wide.

"In the wake of the recent tsunami, it was anticipated that infectious diseases could increase dramatically in affected areas," Garcia-Rubio said. "Public health officials rightfully fear thousands more will die from infectious water-borne and water related diseases after the tsunami. When people are forced to live in crowded refugee camps, they are more easily exposed to infectious diseases that spread quickly due to a lack of clean drinking water and unsanitary conditions."

The CMS research group, comprised of engineers, physicists microbiologists and chemists, is now testing portable, miniaturized biosensors that can - in real-time and continuously - monitor for a number of infectious diseases using as little as a single drop of blood. The sensors then wirelessly teleport data to a remote location for analysis..

"By optically identifying how an organism absorbs and scatters light, our new, minimally invasive technology identifies the light wave spectrum in a sample collected on-site," explained Garcia-Rubio. "Because each organism absorbs and scatters light differently, we can analyze the light wave spectrum and scatter pattern and identify an organism in the sample by comparing those patterns with known, cataloged samples."

Up to now, said Garcia-Rubio, without expensive processes and highly trained personnel, there have been no portable instruments capable of detecting and classifying either microorganisms or cells in real time.

After patenting their technology, the research group has moved into field experiments with confidence that in the near future their advancement will be available to help public health officials rapidly detect not only infectious diseases, commonplace after natural disasters like the recent tsunami, but also waterborne pathogens that can occur in the drinking water of developed countries, including the United States.

According to Debra Huffman, a collaborator of Garcia-Rubio's lab, the new biosensors can detect malarial parasites, the dengue virus that causes dengue fever, e. coli, salmonella, shigalla and listeria as well as causes of bacterial dysentery, such as cryptosporidium (protozoan parasites). The sensors can also identify bacillus antrhacis, anthrax that can be weaponized by terrorists.

"Development and implementation of portable cost effective technologies for the early and rapid diagnosis of pathogenic microorganisms and infectious diseases is the best way to stem the spread of disease following an environmental disaster," said Garcia-Rubio. "However, the new technology can also help prevent the yearly illnesses and deaths resulting from contaminated water supplies both globally and here in the U.S."

It doesn't take a tsunami to cause widespread illnesses resulting from contact with contaminated water.

"The World Health Organization reported in 2002 that there are nearly two million deaths annually related to unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene," pointed out Huffman. "The majority of those deaths are among children under five years of age."

According to Huffman, diarrhoeal diseases account for one-third of illnesses globally and are the sixth leading cause of deaths world-wide.

"Natural disasters notwithstanding, one sixth of the world's population lacks good access to safe water," she said.

The new biosensors can help reduce those rates.

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