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High-tech napkins detect biohazards

Associated Press

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University researchers are developing a napkin that will be able to detect bacteria, viruses and other dangerous substances with a mere swipe.

The napkins, made with special nanofabrics, could have commercial use in food preparation or health care, said Margaret Frey, a professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell.

"It's very inexpensive, it wouldn't require that someone be highly trained to use it and it could be activated for whatever you want to find," Frey said. "So if you're working in a meat-packing plant, for instance, you could swipe it across some hamburger and quickly and easily detect E. coli bacteria."

The biodegradable, absorbent wipe is similar to a common household napkin but has nanofibers containing antibodies to numerous biohazards and chemicals. Users would simply wipe the napkin across a surface, and those antibodies would signal the presence of bacteria or viruses by changing colors, for instance.

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The antibodies "are going to selectively latch onto whatever pathogen that they match," Frey said. "Using this method, we should, in theory, be able to quickly activate the fabric to detect whatever is the hazard of the week, whether it is bird flu, mad cow disease or anthrax."

Frey reported on her work Monday at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in San Francisco. She said her research team has applied for patents and is looking for commercial partners, though the napkin is still a few years away from commercial production.

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