Washington, May 7 : Scientists are working on the development of new cell-based sensors, which would have the capability to detect explosive devices.
Pamela Abshire, Benjamin Shapiro, and Elisabeth Smela, three faculty researchers in the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, are working upon the technology.
Today's biochemical detectors are slow and produce an unacceptable number of false readings.
They are easily fooled because they often cannot distinguish subtle differences between deadly pathogens and harmless substances, and cannot fully monitor or interpret the different ways these substances interact with biological systems.
To solve this problem, the Clark School researchers are learning how to incorporate real cells into tiny micro-systems to detect chemical and biological pathogens.
These tiny sensors, only a few millimeters in size, take advantage of the sensory capabilities of biological cells.
According to the researchers, this "cell-based sensors-on-a-chip" technology would speed up and improve the detection of everything from explosive materials to biological pathogens to spoiled food or impure water.
Different cells can be grown on these microchips, depending on the task at hand.
Like a bloodhound hot on the trail of a scent, a chip containing a collection of olfactory cells plus sensing circuits that can interpret their behavior could detect the presence of explosives.
The researchers plan to use other specialized cells much like a canary in a coal mine.
The cells would show stress or die when exposed to certain pathogens, and the sensing circuits monitoring them would trigger a warning more quickly and accurately than in present systems.
Current research funding for the cell-based sensor technology comes from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
However, potential applications for their use extend well beyond national security.
For example, cell-based sensors could detect the presence of harmful bacteria in ground beef or spinach, or detect the local origin of specialty foods like cheeses or wines. n the pharmaceutical industry, they could identify the most promising medicines in advance of animal and human trials, increasing cost-effectiveness and speed in developing new drugs.
They could also help to speed up research in basic science.
Such arrays could advance biologists' fundamental understanding about the sense of smell or help doctors better see how the immune system works.
They could be placed on fish as they swim in the ocean to monitor water quality, or set on a skyscraper's roof to evaluate air pollution.
"We bring the capability to monitor many different cells in parallel on these chips," explained Abshire. "You could say we're applying Moore's Law of exponentially increasing computer processing capability to cell biology," he added.