Mary Amasia with her prototype anthrax detection system
With Mary Amasia's prototype anthrax detection system, blood or mucus samples are placed in discs for quick analysis of the lethal bacteria. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

When Mary Amasia first studied methods to detect and treat anthrax, one problem became apparent: determining whether someone was infected by the lethal bacteria took too long.

Anthrax, an emerging bioterrorism threat, can kill a person within days. Current detection tests require at least 24 hours to produce results.

Amasia, a chemical engineering doctoral student at UC Irvine, is developing a prototype system to identify anthrax in one hour.

The computer-automated platform uses CD-sized discs to separate blood or mucus samples and break down their cells so public health officials can confirm whether or not anthrax DNA is present. Although far from finished, the device could become a portable diagnostic tool for almost any microbial or viral infection.

“Finding engineering solutions for medical issues matters most to me,” says Amasia, who received a $10,000 Public Impact Fellowship from UCI’s Graduate Division to support the project. “I want to be part of the effort to make healthcare more affordable and more accessible in diverse settings.”

After earning a bachelor’s in engineering at Columbia University in 2004, Amasia began her graduate work in the BioMEMS laboratory of UCI Chancellor’s Professor Marc Madou, where researchers from different engineering disciplines collaborate with industry on biomedical and energy projects.

“We try to foster a very competitive, entrepreneurial atmosphere in our lab that pays off with our students winning awards and starting their own companies,” Madou says. “In this environment, Mary has become a strong leader. She is very serious about her work and wants it to make an impact beyond her doctorate.”

In testing the prototype, Amasia employs a noninfectious surrogate form of the anthrax bacterium. The chemicals she uses for DNA detection are activated by both anthrax and its surrogate. Different chemicals, she says, would repurpose the device for other microbes or viruses.

“We’re getting good results, and we’ve taken big steps,” Amasia says. “We’ve shown that the detection method and hardware are viable.”

She would like to see the prototype further developed into a portable product that third-world clinics could use to detect infectious diseases.

“There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome,” she says. “But it is a dream.”