A sense of chemistry

A sensor that can detect tiny levels of anthrax molecules in the air is being developed by a new company spun out of Oxford University’s chemistry department.


Oxford NanoLabs will concentrate on identifying the deadly virus during development of a new generation of bio-terrorism warning systems.


The devices will ultimately form an array of sensors linked to an IT system designed to detect and identify any form of known chemical attack.


Potential future applications for the sensor go beyond identifying bio-terrorist attacks, according to the company.


Individual sensors could be adapted to identify almost any specific molecule, opening the way for their use in advanced medical procedures such as those involving DNA.


The sensors are made up of pores constructed from the staphylococcus aureus bacterium. Biological and chemical engineering are used to make the desired molecule bind with the pore.


Oxford’s professor of chemical biology, Hagan Bayley, who developed the process, said: ‘We think it’s possible to detect just about anything you can think of at a simple molecular level. We can even watch chemical reactions go on inside the pore.’


The focus on bio-terrorism is intended to respond to an immediate gap in the market for an effective sensor device, said Oxford NanoLabs. Beyond this it has identified two further target sectors.


The first is the emerging area of medical markers. Healthcare companies such as Bayer are currently seeking to develop handheld devices that can identify the presence of B-type natriuretic peptide in the blood of people who are suspected of suffering from heart problems. At present hospitals conduct expensive electrocardiogram scans to tell whether a patient is suffering from heart failure or just indigestion.


The second promising field is personalised medicine. The sensors’ pores could be adapted to recognise specific sections of DNA, useful because the presence of different DNA strands gives a clue to the most effective treatment. Oxford NanoLabs hopes to enable development of handheld devices that can identify medical markers within the next two to three years, and anthrax sensors within five years.