Harper, who was elected to the state Legislature last year, is developing a device for Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque that could help farmers detect anthrax, or, with a slight modification, detect other potential threats.
The device could be modified to detect the poison ricin — which was found in letters to President Barack Obama, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi and a judge from Mississippi — or even sold as an off-the-shelf product to detect E. coli or the bacteria that causes strep throat.
“I would love to see this product on the shelves of a local drug store,” Harper said.
The prototype is designed for farmers and their livestock, though. And it could help keep a weaponized version of anthrax from showing up in people’s mailboxes or in crowds of people.
Anthrax, a bacterial disease that can be fatal in both animals and humans, tends to pop up in animals quite often in some parts of the world, like Southeast Asia and northern Africa. The spores that cause the disease can survive harsh conditions and live on the ground for decades. Those spores infect grazing animals when the animals eat the spores in grass or other plant life.
When a concerned farmer swabs the animal and takes a sample to a lab, Harper said, it is all too easy for a terrorist to get his hands on the spores and turn them into a weapon.
“In these areas, there are laboratories full of anthrasis samples, and they have absolutely no security,” he said.
Harper pointed out that this is a situation that former U.S. Sen. Richard Luger, R-Indiana, called out as a threat to national security. Turning the anthrax spores into a weapon is simply a matter of turning them into a fine powder, one that will go airborne, Harper said.
To address that problem, Harper’s team is trying to cut the labs out of the picture. They have developed a test for farmers who are concerned about sick animals to determine whether they’ve got a case of anthrax. Then the device sterilizes itself and kills off the anthrax.
It’s important to note that the device is a year or more away from being ready for production and still has a few tests to go through. Harper wouldn’t describe it in great detail, but he said it is about the size of four credit cards stacked on top of each other and it is dead simple to use.
“It works like a pregnancy test,” he said.
The farmer swabs his sick animal, twists the swab into the device and waits.
After some undisclosed period of time, a brightly colored line will appear if there is anthrax present. But making a simple device that will work every time is not easy, Harper said.
“There were a couple of really important requirements for this device that made it really tricky,” he said.
It had to be able to detect a very small amount of the disease, he said. So far, it seems like the device can detect as few as 100 spores.
It doesn’t use power, not even a battery; it is easy enough to use that a farmer with about a third- grade education can do the test without instructions; and it can take a battering and still work.
If the device is left on an airplane tarmac in the heat of the day or left out at night, it will still work, Harper said.
But there are still a lot of tests to perform, he said. He wants to throw a host of bugs at the device and see if it will give him a false positive, then run another series of tests using a variety of bugs and about 100 anthrax spores to see if it can still detect the disease.
One of the important attributes of the device, he said, is that it is inexpensive, so they can compete with the labs and foot the bill to get the test into farmer’s hands.
“Culture on a plate is dirt cheap. We have to be cheap ourselves,” he said. “We just don’t have a lot of money out there.”
Labs support entrepreneurship
At Sandia National Labs, inventions like the one state Rep. Jason Harper is working on are patented and owned by the US Department of Energy.
Sandia receives licensing royalties and the inventors and employees take home part of that money.
For those who want to take their inventions further, Sandia has a program called “Entrepreneurial Leave.” An employee can leave Sandia for two or three years to start a company and develop the technology that started in a lab at Sandia. For those few years, the former employee is guaranteed their old position.
That program helps take some of the risk out of leaving to forge a start-up tech company, Harper said.
“I personally have no plans to take Entrepreneurial Leave. Starting a company takes a ton of time, and between being a state representative, scoutmaster, youth pastor and a father of four small children, I think I have enough on my plate,” Harper said.