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SCIENCE REPORT - Nov. 15: New Genetic Test for Anthrax - 2001-11-14

This is the VOA Special English Science Report.

Last week, medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota announced that they have developed a new test that can quickly identify the anthrax bacteria.

The bacteria have been found in letters mailed in the United States. At least sixteen people in the United States have suffered anthrax infections in the past month. They developed lung or skin infections from the bacteria. Most have been postal workers or people who work for the media. Several people have died.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic say the best way to save lives is to quickly find out if anthrax bacteria is present in areas where people live and work. Until now, testing for anthrax took several days to complete. The suspected material had to be sent to special laboratories.

The Mayo Clinic researchers say their new test can identify the bacteria in less than one hour. It is important to identify the earliest signs of the disease because early treatment for anthrax greatly increases the chances of survival.The Mayo Clinic is working to develop the test with Roche Diagnostics, a health research company in Indianapolis, Indiana. The new test examines genetic material, or D-N-A, using equipment developed by Roche Diagnostics. The equipment is called the Light Cycler. One researcher said tests in the laboratory have found as few as five anthrax bacteria in a single D-N-A sample. The test can do this in about thirty-five minutes. The researchers say the test also does not give any false positive results. That is, it does not show anthrax is present when it is not. However, the test has not yet been used to identify the anthrax bacteria in people.

The Mayo Clinic researchers say the new tests will be sent to laboratories that already have the Light Cycler equipment. They will be used to identify anthrax in buildings and in the mail. Early next month, the tests will be sent to other public health agencies and hospital laboratories in the United States and around the world.

The developers of the test are seeking approval by the United States Food and Drug Administration to use the tests to identify anthrax in people. That approval is expected later this year.

This VOA Special English Science Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.