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Building a Better Detector: Fitch Finds Pathogens at LLNL


“The autonomous pathogen detection system” is a cumbersome name, so around Lawrence Livermore National Lab, bio smoke alarm will do. “If you believe a smoke alarm is the size of a file cabinet and weighs a couple hundred pounds, it’s a smoke alarm,” says Patrick Fitch, who, after three years in the human genome center at LLNL, has taken his sequencing expertise to a new counter-terrorism program he leads for chemical and biological national security.

“What we are trying to do — whatever size it takes — is build a machine that behaves like a smoke alarm,” says Fitch. The machine in question is a biodetection system that collects its own samples and performs tests without the need for a person to intervene. The machine would complete an antibody test, and another test to examine nucleic acids. “It looks at the DNA of the bacteria or the RNA of the virus,” Fitch says. “Those tests are very, very specific and very sensitive.”

“We do both tests in the one box,” Fitch explains. “It gives us the speed of the antibody, but if we get a positive, before we say, ‘Yup, it is,’ we also run it through a DNA kind of test and that gives us a very high level of confidence.” Fitch and his team examine pathogens using expression, sequencing, and proteomics to help them understand the strain and figure out how to build a standalone machine to detect it.

During the years Fitch spent at the genome center, he worked in instrumentation for faster sequencing and automation. But when pathogens started taking up more of his time, he focused on them and moved away from DNA sequencing, which he considers a commodity business now. “It’s not that science and technology don’t have a role, but there’s not as much room to innovate and there’s not as much science in the sequencing itself,” he says.

The science is what’s important to Fitch, who has spent 17 years at Livermore and enjoys the team atmosphere there since it exposes him to other fields of study. “If I came to work and today looked like yesterday, there’s no reason to stay,” he says.

— Amanda Urban


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