Mobile testing for Ebola gains renewed urgency as outbreak grows

PositiveID has a handheld prototype device that could be ready for use within two years

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Once transmitted to the larger Firefly device, the data is further interpreted and can be sent to a smartphone or other device via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, with the data eventually stored in a cloud-based system easily accessible by multiple parties. The data can also be read on an LED display.

Firefly runs on a proprietary, open-source operating system built with C, C++ and HTML tools, Probst said. A separate battery charger can recharge the device's lithium-ion battery.

Much of the research on Firefly began a decade ago and was financed with $35 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Probst said. A team led by Probst first built an 800-lb., closet-size machine called the M-Band, which is used to test air quality and to detect and identify airborne viruses, toxins and bacteria within two hours. PostiveID has partnered with Boeing to license M-Band to customers; it is currently being tested by the U.S. Department of Defense in South Korea, Probst said.

Using the know-how gained from the M-Band project, Probst said PositiveID raised $2 million from a classified government program that he wouldn't name plus $1.5 million raised internally to begin downsizing M-Band into the Firefly prototype. That process began three years ago, and the current version of the prototype was substantially readied more than a year ago.

"We've talked with several government agencies and there's a very large need for a device such as this, so I fully anticipate government funding in place this year," Probst said. Eventually, the final device will be even smaller than the prototype, he predicted, since keeping it small and highly mobile is a key driver for the project. A ruggedized device for military use is also contemplated.

Firefly can also be used to detect radiation poisoning from a blood sample to determine the exact level of radiation exposure, which can useful for patients undergoing cancer treatment as well as astronauts in outer space, Probst said.

"The largest application will be for diseases, including flu and Ebola or a pathogen that comes into the country intentionally or unintentionally," Probst said. It could even be used to test cows for mad cow disease, he said.

Probst was trained as a biologist but also holds an MBA and manages the business side of PositiveID, which employs just 10 full-time staffers. Manufacturing and other processes are outsourced.

Work on Firefly is obviously timely, given the current Ebola outbreak and likely outbreaks in the future.

The WHO has urged all nations, including the U.S., to be prepared to detect, investigate and manage Ebola cases. That includes providing access to a qualified diagnostic lab for Ebola detection at international airports and major land crossing points.

Probst said he thinks other companies might be developing mobile Ebola testing devices, but he placed PositiveID on the "cutting edge" of development.

A Denver company, Corgenix Medical, is also working on a rapid diagnostic test kit for Ebola, but the work is in early stages and could last another three years, according to a statement released Monday. It isn't clear whether the Corgenix test kit would be used as a mobile device, like the Firefly, or in some other form, like a home test kit. Corgenix didn't respond to a request to comment.

Corgenix is working with the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium headed by Tulane University to use a $2.9 million National Institutes of Health grant to accelerate efforts to develop rapid result diagnostic kits to be ready by the time of the next Ebola outbreak.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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