This is a device originally devised to protect soldiers from biological and chemical warfare. Can you think of a novel way to use this technology? Enter for a shot at prizes!

Marblar creates science competitions around unused inventions, letting innovators worldwide compete to find creative applications. Here is one of their latest competitions, involving technology developed by the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory: a device based on lateral flow strip technology called the Surface Sampler.

While the top entry will get the winner Marble and prize money, the top three entrants will also have the opportunity to pitch their idea directly to Ploughshare Innovations—who commercialize the inventions coming from the British Defence Science and Technology Labs. Each will get an hour either in person or on the phone. 

So, read on for a description of the product, and when you’re done, click on the link at the end of the article to enter the challenge!

Armed forces must often test their environment for biological or chemical toxins, something that has recently re-emerged as a threat in North Africa and the Middle East. As you can imagine, these tests are done in hostile environments and as such the test equipment needs to be simple, quick, reliable, and robust. So we here at Ploughshare Innovation, part of the British Ministry of Defence, got clever and developed a device based on lateral flow strip technology—just like you find in a pregnancy test! Only ours uses a built-in swab, and in one step can screen for multiple compounds, while automatically saving samples for future analysis.

A diagram of a basic lateral flow strip (Source: Wikimedia) is shown to the right—essentially it’s a test with a visual indicator indicating the presence of a specific compound. While a wide range of substances can be detected, in our case that colour change can indicate the presence of a dangerous chemical warfare agent or a biological one—like a baby 😉

Lateral Flow Assay Architecture [Wikimedia]

So here’s how it works: The device has a moist sponge on one end, which the operator uses to sample a surface. The sponge is capped, and by twisting the other end, the sample is released onto 6–8 parallel lateral flow strips. After 15 minutes each strip displays a pattern indicating the presence (or absence) of a specific substance.

Our beloved Surface Sampler is shown to the left.

So you have foolproof all-in-one operation, sample containment for future reference, and versatile detection of multiple compounds—that must be useful somewhere apart from the battlefield, right?

The Surface Sampler.

Potential Applications

The current main application for the device is to allow front-line personnel to detect hazardous micro-organisms, toxins, chemical agents and explosives from surfaces. We’ve considered (but not pursued) some other areas as well:

  • Detection of other hazardous substances, e.g. toxic industrial chemicals, drugs of abuse, from surfaces or other sample types, e.g. human body fluids.
  • Detection of microorganisms, toxins or other undesirable substances from e.g., food and drink or their processing environment; animals or their environments for veterinary/animal health purposes; clean room or healthcare environments

Your Mission

We’re very interested to hear about any specific applications, especially where there is a convincing business case for licensing/sale of the technology. This can be from one of the areas above, or in a completely different setting.

Most promising will be those applications that make use of the unique advantages of the device, namely one-step sampling/analysis, detection of multiple analytes at once and the sample containment/retention. For extra brownie points, we’d love to hear about who some potential industry partners might be as well.

Key Features

  • Enables simultaneous detection of 6-8 analytes. Can be any substance amenable to detection by antibodies, e.g. micro-organisms, chemical residues, foodstuffs etc.
  • Fast and easy-to-interpret multiplex lateral flow strip technology—this is already the current technology of choice for front-line testing for hazardous substances.
  • One-step sampling and analysis (competing similar multiplex assays require transferring samples from a swab to the analysis device manually)
  • Retains samples for reference or later analysis, physically linked to the results. Also means hazardous samples are safely contained.
  • Ergonomic and easy to operate and read results: Can e.g. be operated while wearing thick gloves
  • Unpowered, physically robust and disposable
  • Works across a wide temperature range (4–40°C)

The Story Behind the Science

I’m Peter White, a researcher at the Defence Science and Technology Lab (Dstl). Dstl’s purpose is to maximise the impact of science and technology for the defence and security of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom (God save the Queen). As such, part of our role is to indicate and identify chemical and biological threats in order to initiate command decisions and maintain operational effectiveness.

This invention came about through the desire to make testing for hazardous materials in challenging environments easier for military and security personnel. I simply took an existing detection technology—lateral flow test strips—and integrated it into a simple power free device that could be used in frontline environments. I’m really happy about the Surface Sampler because it extends and improves the utility of an established detection format to create a novel solution in a short time frame.

Click here to learn more and enter the challenge!

This challenge is from Marblar, which creates science competitions around unused inventions. Join thousands of Marblars from around the world who are joining forces to realize the promise of science.

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