Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a device, dubbed ‘ThraxVac,’ that can collect and kill anthrax and other bacterial spores. The patent-pending device has been licensed to Circle Group Holdings, Inc, a public company based in Mundeen, Illinois.
ThraxVac vacuums up anthrax and other bacterial spores, then ‘tricks’ the spores into germinating through heat and moisture, making them vulnerable to injury. The newly activated spores are then bombarded with alpha particles, which kill the spores, rendering them non-toxic.
Carl Czajkowski, a Brookhaven Lab scientist, and Barbara Panessa-Warren, a biology consultant for Brookhaven, thought of the idea for the invention together in 2001 shortly after several anthrax incidents in the US were widely reported.
‘We thought there must be a better way to clean up anthrax, other than using harsh chemicals that are dangerous to humans and to the environment. Also, chemicals often can’t do the job thoroughly,’ said Czajkowski.
ThraxVac is expected to be as portable as a home vacuum cleaner, or it can be retrofitted as part of a building’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, where it would continually capture and kill suspect bacteria and spores. In both of these technologies, a disposable filter is fitted with its own enclosed low-level polonium-210 source that emits alpha particles to continuously kill collected spores. All collected spores would be dead when the filter is discarded.
Specifically, alpha particles emitted from polonium-210 act as a static eliminator in paper mills and other industries. Alpha particles in ThraxVac can be used to decontaminate not only large surfaces, but also intricate machinery and moving parts, without impairment of function.
ThraxVac is said to have several advantages over current methods of killing anthrax spores. The polonium source does not need heavy shielding, so the device is lightweight and easily portable.
The use of polonium to produce alpha particles virtually eliminates the health and radiation hazards associated with gamma and x-ray sources. Since the polonium is contained in a closed source, it is not airborne, so there is no danger of inhaling it. Also, bleach, alcohol, acids, bases, or solvents do not easily kill endospores. Any anthrax spores that are not killed can remain a threat for many years.
With additional funding from Circle Group Holdings, Inc., Czajkowski and Panessa-Warren, with the aid of George Tortora, Head of Clinical Microbiology at University Hospital, Stony Brook, intend to continue proof-of-principle tests and microscopic analysis of the spore destruction process using both transmission electron microscopy and scanning electron microscopy at Brookhaven.