Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

MIT’s ‘CANARY-in-a-Coal-Mine’ Biosensor Tech Shown to Detect Airborne Pathogens

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory have developed a lymphocyte-based biosensor technology that they said can detect airborne pathogens in three minutes.
The technology, known as Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields, or CANARY, was developed for use in biodefense as well as nonmilitary applications and has been shown to identify the pathogens responsible for anthrax and smallpox, the researchers said.
CANARY has been licensed to Rockville, Md.-based Innovative Biosensors, which recently began selling a tool based on the technology called BioFlash. BioFlash customers include the US Department of Defense.
CANARY uses B-lymphocytes, Todd Rider, the senior staff scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory who is credited with inventing the technology, told CBA News this week.
“We have genetically engineered these cells so that they will have surface antibodies that are specific for whatever bacteria or other pathogens we want to detect,” including those responsible for plague, anthrax, and smallpox.
When these antibodies bind to the pathogens that they recognize, that sends a calcium signal inside the cell. The aequorin protein that is produced by the aequorin gene that has been transfected into these cells will in turn respond to that calcium signal by emitting photons.
“All of this takes place within seconds of pathogen detection,” Rider said.  “We have demonstrated that we can detect fewer than 50 particles of pathogens.”
CANARY is incorporated into the Pathogen Notification for Threatening Environmental Releases, or PANTHER, system, another Lincoln lab-developed sensor device.
“In hardware like the PANTHER sensor, the B-lymphocytes’ ability to rapidly and sensitivity detect pathogens is combined with the mechanism to bring pathogens in contact with the cells,” said Rider. Air samples are brought in, and particles from the air are extracted and combined with B-lymphocytes, he said.
Since the B-lymphocytes will glow if they find particular pathogens, photomultiplier tubes inside these sensors detect light output from the B-lymphocytes, Rider said.
“Different B-lymphocytes respond to different pathogens, so depending on which B-lymphocytes glow, you know exactly what pathogen you have found,” he added.
‘Accidental Releases’
Innovative Biosensors founder Joe Hernandez licensed the CANARY technology from MIT Lincoln Labs about five years ago, Richard Thomas, president of IBI’s environmental group, told CBA News this week.
“Joe recognized the merits of the technology and formed the company around that technology for medical and biodefense applications” he said, adding that the assay’s speed, sensitivity, and specificity appealed to Hernandez, according to Thomas. 

“In hardware like the PANTHER sensor, the B-lymphocytes’ ability to rapidly and sensitivity detect pathogens is combined with the mechanism to bring pathogens in contact with the cells.”

IBI’s BioFlash product is intended for biodefense applications, specifically looking for aerosolized biological threats, including the pathogen responsible for anthrax.
Customers for BioFlash include the Department of Defense, commercial security firms that provide security for office buildings and high-risk buildings, and biosafety laboratories, said Thomas.
“If you are working with these agents and you are concerned about accidental releases, we could set these devices up and they would monitor the environment and can detect very low levels of aerosolized bacteria, viruses, and toxins,” he said.
CANARY also has nonmilitary applications, including detecting Legionnaire’s disease in air ducts, “or someone being sick and getting on an airplane and spreading SARS,” Rider said.
The technology also has applications beyond airborne pathogen detection. “We have demonstrated methods of taking samples such a saliva samples, blood samples, samples from surfaces, or even samples from agricultural products, and testing those very rapidly for bacteria and viruses of interest,” Rider said.
In a doctor’s office or other clinical setting, for instance, a saliva or blood sample could be taken — or, if the potential pathogen is airborne, a patient could cough on a PANTHER sensor — and clinicians could quickly identify the pathogen of infection.
Rider also said that in an agricultural setting, a sample could be taken from beef that is being processed to see if it is contaminated with Escherichia coli. Or samples could be obtained from plants and analyzed for viruses or bacteria of interest.
“You could monitor water quality and analyze samples for the presence of waterborne pathogens to ensure the safety of drinking water,” Rider said.
IBI has a cooperative research and development agreement with Lincoln Labs and continues to collaborate on the development of new markets and new assays, said Thomas.
He declined to discuss the details of BioFlash’s market size on the grounds that “market numbers may be proprietary information.”
Rider said he invented CANARY in 1997. “I wanted to develop much faster and more sensitive methods of detecting pathogens, for either bioterrorism or medical diagnostic purposes, for example,” he said.
At the time, there were two competing technologies: PCR and immunoassays, said Rider, adding that neither one had the necessary speed or sensitivity.
“I decided to go with the cell-based approach — no one had ever thought of using B-lymphocytes for this application,” he said. “I knew that the B-cells were actually designed to be very fast and very sensitive in detecting pathogens, so rather than invent something from scratch, I figured I’d borrow what nature had already invented.”
Rider’s initial work on CANARY was published in a 2003 paper in Science.

The Scan

New Study Highlights Role of Genetics in ADHD

Researchers report in Nature Genetics on differences in genetic architecture between ADHD affecting children versus ADHD that persists into adulthood or is diagnosed in adults.

Study Highlights Pitfall of Large Gene Panels in Clinical Genomic Analysis

An analysis in Genetics in Medicine finds that as gene panels get larger, there is an increased chance of uncovering benign candidate variants.

Single-Cell Atlas of Drosophila Embryogenesis

A new paper in Science presents a single-cell atlas of fruit fly embryonic development over time.

Phage Cocktail Holds Promise for IBD

Researchers uncovered a combination phage therapy that targets Klebsiella pneumonia strains among individuals experiencing inflammatory bowel disease flare ups, as they report in Cell.