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Federal boffins deploy 'DON'T PANIC' machine

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US federal boffins reckon they could be on the track of an easy-to-use kit or sensor which could tell if people had been exposed to nerve gas or other chemical weapons. This would allow medics dealing with victims of possible future terror attacks to separate out genuine casualties from the swarms of "worried well."

Principal investigator Yuehe Lin of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) says that his team of brainboxes are developing an “electrochemical immunoassay approach.”

According to the PNNL release, this is done just as one would expect: by removing the iron from a nanoparticle-sized ball of the protein ferrin, creating an empty "cage" called apoferritin. Naturally the cage is then "loaded" with another metal, for instance cadmium. The cadmium-filled cage is attached to one end of the reporting antibody, and - hey presto - the immuno-reaction product becomes electroactive.

Which is good. Apparently.

"The [scientific thing] is amplified several hundreds to a thousand times because of the [other scientific thing we have done]," Lin said. "This level of sensitivity will allow detectors to [do some major scientific stuff]."

Okay, we didn't really understand. But the end result is simple enough. All this nano-cage electroimmunoassay business will result in "a portable biomonitor to rapidly evaluate tiny samples of blood or saliva for exposure to nerve agents."

That would be very useful indeed. As an example, the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve-gas attack produced very few genuine serious casualties. Most victims suffered only passing vision impairment, and just 54 people were seriously affected, with an eventual death toll of 12.

But quite apart from the actual casualties, there was a huge psychological impact, leading to headlines claiming that thousands were poisoned. According to the Stimson Center report on the incident:

"Roughly 85 percent of those reporting to hospitals in the aftermath of the sarin attack were psychogenic patients, also called the worried well. These psychogenic patients had no real chemical injuries, but they nonetheless clamored for medical attention. Thus, doctors and nurses faced the multiple challenges of distinguishing truly injured from worried well ..."

But now, if the PNNL research bears fruit, the fright factor of such attacks - the main impact they produce - could be much reduced or even nullified. If 9 out of 10 people who thought they'd been gassed could be quickly checked and told they were fine, the magnitude of the incident reduces to much less than than of an ordinary bombing, or even an accidental fire or train crash. The terrorist is robbed of almost all his terror.

Apparently, Lin's five-year biosensor programme is costing the US taxpayers just $3.5m; and it seems likely to reduce the nerve-gas terror threat very significantly indeed, unlike many a more expensive and ambitious programme. All in all, a nice change from mind probes, puke rays and dirty-bomb hype.

This ought to be as popular as the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which famously scored over its rivals by having the words "don't panic" inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover.®

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