Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed and licensed a new sensor, dubbed PANTHER, that can detect airborne pathogens within minutes, the university said last week.

The Pathogen Notification for Threatening Environmental Releases (PANTHER) sensor can detect the pathogens in as little as three minutes, MIT said.

The technology has been licensed to Innovative Biosensors Inc. (IBI) of Rockville, Md. In January, IBI began selling a product, BioFlash, that uses the PANTHER technology.

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PANTHER is not alone among environmental sensors, but the university said the time to detect any bacteria or viruses was significantly smaller than rival sensors, which can take 20 minutes or more to detect the same organisms.

PANTHER can currently detect 24 pathogens, including anthrax, plague, smallpox, tularemia and E. coli, using just a few dozen particles in a liter of air.

The sensor actually uses modified human immune cells, called B cells, to detect the pathogens.

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Each B cell is "trained" to look for a specific pathogen. When one in the array of B cells detects a pathogen, it emits a photon of light that is detected and recorded.

MIT dubbed the array and the use of the B cells "CANARY", after the bird used to detect carbon dioxide in coal mines.

The prototype sensor is about a cubic foot and weighs 37 pounds. It is well suited to building-protection applications, MIT said.

It also could be used in doctor's offices, where patients could simply breathe into the detector and have results back in a few minutes.

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