Mobile 'biological pathogen detector' project boosted by $5.2m extension

14 October 2020

A collaborative research project to detect and identify pathogens in an urban environment has received a $5.2m (£3.9m) contract extension from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense.

Kromek PLC, The Earlham Institute and the Natural History Museum, London, will continue to work together under the terms of the new contract to develop mobile wide-area bio-surveillance systems capable of detecting airborne pathogens.

The announcement follows the successful completion of the base period of the contract, awarded by DARPA in December 2018, which focused on the development of a vehicle-mounted biological pathogen identifier. 

The miniaturised system under development will be capable of detecting viruses and bacteria and is designed to be mounted on vehicles, enabling early detection of a pathogenic threat. The small, unmanned system, which can be run continuously, could be used in high footfall areas, such as hospitals and airports. 

The completed system aims to extend the existing SIGMA network for biological pathogens as part of DARPA’s SIGMA+ initiative. The extended contract is now set to conclude in June 2021.

Kromek is a worldwide supplier of detection technology focusing on the medical, security screening and nuclear markets. They are working alongside the Earlham Institute, a life science research centre in Norwich with expertise in computational bioscience and biotechnology, and the Natural History Museum in London, whose collections, expertise and technology allows them to answer key scientific questions. 

The science that underpins the detector is being developed by the Earlham Institute, Natural History Museum, London, and Kromek, who are then applying their expertise to translate this into prototypes of a small and mobile sensor.

Dr Arnab Basu, CEO of Kromek, said: “We are delighted to be awarded this extension by DARPA. The technology developed under this program is capable of sample collection to comprehensive analysis of pathogens present in air in an autonomous manner. By sequencing the genetic code, the device can not only identify threat pathogens, but also be used to identify the particular strain to aid triage and treatment selection, in addition to being able to track mutations of the pathogen.

“As the system can be vehicle mounted or placed in high footfall areas such as hospitals and airports, the location where the sample is collected can be mapped to a GPS position. The transfer of data to a central server allows a picture of pathogen levels across a city to be built up enabling decision makers to react rapidly to any evolving pathogenic threat.”

Dr Richard Leggett, Technology Algorithms Group Leader at the Earlham Institute, said: “Existing protocols for identifying potential biological pathogens are relatively slow. The idea behind this project is to design a far more responsive system that provides real-time analysis of the environment. It could be adapted for many purposes, ranging from clinical infections, crop or animal diseases to national security.”

Professor Matthew Clark, Research Leader at Natural History Museum, said: “This technology gives us a unique ability to understand biodiversity and the environment – not just in urban centres but also the jungles, plains, mountains, rivers and oceans of the world. In addition to human pathogens it can be used to identify potentially invasive species such as Ash Dieback and prevent them establishing and devastating our countries environment.”