University of Ulster DNA finger printing technique leads fight against bio-terrorism

Jordanstown 10 March 2003A University of Ulster researcher has pioneered new analytical techniques that could save thousands of lives in the event of a bio-terrorist attack. Dr. Colm Lowery, from the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, has developed a revolutionary method of detecting the killer bugs that could wipe out entire populations if terrorists strike.

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Current methods of tracing potential bio-terrorist agents such as Cryptosporidium or Clostridium botulinum can take up to five days but Dr. Lowery's new DNA finger printing technique takes only fifteen minutes, saving a vital diagnostic time in the event of a biological warfare attack.

The importance of Dr. Lowery's work has been recognised by the award of a prestigious Winston Churchill Fellowship. The Sir Winston Churchill Fellowship was established in 1965. Dr. Lowery was awarded the fellowship in the category of Medical and Health for his project entitled: "Developing Medical Research Tools to Counter Bio-terrorist Attacks."

Dr. Lowery has also been invited to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, Atlanta, USA, to work alongside the world's leading scientists in the fight against bio-terrorism. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is recognised as a centre of excellence and a world leading organisation in its field. It is currently evaluating the United States military's present state-of-the-art detection hardware as used in their Biowarfare Programme.

"If bio-terrorists were to strike, a likely method of attack would be to contaminate our water system with some of the more commonly found human pathogens such as E. coli or Cryptosporidium", stated Dr. Lowery. "Current scientific practices take several days to establish whether or not there has actually been an outbreak. These new cutting-edge techniques will act as an early warning system for detecting these killer bugs in our water supplies. The method can equally be applied to routine monitoring of food and drinking water quality for the natural occurrence of these deadly pathogens."

Because the DNA finger printing technology is so fast, it will be invaluable in the event of a biological attack, allowing the quick detection of the source and type of agent that has been used. Subsequently, it will be easier to treat victims and prevent more outbreaks. The bottom line is that the introduction of these new technologies will help save lives.

Dr. Lowery explained: "I will be involved in evaluating the United States military's present bio-detection hardware which is currently used in their Biowarfare Programme and I hope to make a valuable contribution by testing my DNA finger printing system against Category 1 and Category 2 bio-terrorist agents."

The techniques can also be transferred to other vital areas of medical research. "The whole area of molecular diagnostics is an exciting and rapidly evolving area, not only in infectious diseases but also in haematological malignancies, diabetes and cancer, which has attracted much interest from the National Health Service (NHS)", stated Dr. Lowery. "Such an area of mutual interest holds great potential for future interaction between academics and the NHS which I am keen to nurture and develop."

Dr. Lowery will also travel to the Tokyo University of Fisheries in Japan to focus on the development of real time detection systems for pathogens transmitted in food.


Leslie Versweyveld

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