Creating a self-sufficient device to test for the onset of anthrax in challenging environments

Candice Ben

Candice Ben displays the BaDx device that allows portable testing for the anthrax bacteria. Standing by Candice is her mentor, Dr. Jason Harper, R&D chemical engineer (Photo Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories).

Imagine a disease with various means of infection, each with different signs and symptoms. Now, imagine being unknowingly infected with this potentially lethal disease and having no means to identify the cause of the painful symptoms, ranging from skin lesions to violent vomiting. Unfortunately, for many people in underserved communities, this scenario is a reality.

Bacillus anthracis, the bacterial species that causes the anthrax disease and was weaponized in the United States’ 2001 anthrax scare, is often difficult to test for and identify quickly. While infections through small cuts in the skin are seldom fatal with proper treatment, inhalation or infection of the gastrointestinal tract via Bacillus anthracis often results in death, even when treated by medical professionals. Even more alarming is that these fatal versions of anthrax have early symptoms akin to the common flu. This is especially problematic given the dangerous nature and quick onset of the disease.

To help solve this problem, Candice Ben of Dine College, spent her summer optimizing a device to test for the onset of anthrax as an undergraduate researcher at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Ben was a participant in the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program. This program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the United States.

“My internship assignment consisted of performance characterization and abuse testing of these portable diagnostic devices for use in low resource environments,” said Ben. “These diagnostic devices, known as BaDx, are layers of plastic made into 3D fluidic diagnostic cartridges. BaDx tests for Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria responsible for an anthrax infection.”
To facilitate this portability, Ben focused on improving the parameters under which BaDx could operate. By increasing the durability of the device, BaDx becomes more applicable in real-world scenarios.

“With my research, we were able to improve the device to work in various conditions, such as hot and cold temperatures, also after vigorous shipping and handling,” Ben said.

Ben’s research is especially important because South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeastern Asia, locations that are most at risk for anthrax exposure, are often very hot and subject to harsh climates.

Ben’s research continues to be of interest to the scientific community, even after her time at Sandia. The data she collected from her experiments will be published and the BaDx device will be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for trials and verification.

Ben plans to incorporate the experiences and abilities she gained at Sandia into her continuing education at the University of New Mexico as she pursues a Doctorate of Pharmacy. After earning this degree, she hopes to pursue a career in cancer research at either the New Mexico Cancer Center or at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Ben’s passion for helping those in low resource environments extends beyond the laboratory. During her time at Sandia, she took part in the Sandia Women’s Action Network as well as the American Indian Outreach Committee, and she is currently involved in Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science.

Having completed her summer appointment, Ben remains confident that her time at Sandia National Laboratories was a worthwhile experience that has prepared her for the future.

In Ben’s words, “I would like to thank the Department of Homeland Security, ORAU/ORISE, Sandia National Laboratories, and my mentors for this wonderful opportunity. I would definitely recommend this program to anyone interested in doing research as it opens a lot of doors and exposes you to new experiences. I enjoyed the work I did, the people I met, and the connections I made this summer, and I am looking forward to gaining more laboratory experience and also continuing my education.”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.