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UK gov awards £1m to bio-terror detector firm

Nanotech firm develops synthetic antibodies

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The government has handed £1m in grants and awards to a nanotech company that has developed a new way of detecting a bioterror attack. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) both contributed to the funding package.

The company concerned, Nanosight, is cagey about explaining its technology because its patents are all still under review. What it will say is that it has developed a way of replicating viral antibodies using non-biological means, specifically "computer and microelectronics technology".

When exposed to an antigen, that is a virus or a bacterium, the body produces antibodies. These are proteins that are able to combine with and neutralise the antigen. They are a very specific match to the virus concerned, much as a key is a match to a particular lock. When they encounter the antigen, they 'lock' into it, stopping it from interacting with anything else.

Traditionally, antibodies can be grown in a lab. A lab animal is infected with a disease. Its immune system produces the antibody which is then grown in a petri dish. However, as CEO John Knowles explains, growing antibodies is a difficult process, and once grown, the antibodies don't live very long. He says his company's technique will save researchers time and money, and the results will be longer lasting.

The immediate goal is to develop the technology into a portable detector that could be used in the field. The company has partnered with Smith Detection in this endeavour, "to help protect our IP", Knowles explains. In the very long term, he sees the technology being deployed across cities in passive sensors that would sound the alarm if they detected a bio-agent: "That could be one way of using the technology, but it is a long way off," he said.

The company has made full disclosure to the DTI, in confidence, and that the work has been subject to peer review. The technology also has applications in the pharmaceutical business, Knowles says. ®

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