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May 7, 2003
For Immediate Release

Media Contact

Helen Worth
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Laurel, MD 20723
Phone: 240-228-5113 or 443-778-5113

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Names Its Top Three Inventions of the Year

At its fourth annual Invention of the Year ceremony tonight, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., announced its top inventions for 2002 in three categories:

  • Life Sciences — Portable Malaria Screening and Diagnosis Method
  • Information Sciences — Software for Automated Coding of Medical Records
  • Physical Sciences — Combined Chemical/Biological Agent Detection by Mass Spectrometry

An independent, outside review panel selected the winners from 123 APL inventions — representing the work of 204 inventors — based on their potential benefit to society, improvement over existing technology, and commercial potential.

John Sommerer, the Laboratory's chief technology officer, and APL Director of Technology Transfer Wayne Swann congratulated researchers for their work and presented trophies and cash awards to the three winning teams of inventors.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Richard Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, also made remarks at the ceremony.


Portable Malaria Screening and Diagnosis Method

Plamen Demirev and Andrew Feldman, of APL's Research and Technology Development Center, teamed with Darin Kongkasuriyachai, Nirbhay Kumar, Peter Scholl, and David Sullivan, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to develop a rapid method of detecting very low levels of the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium in blood.

Each year there are an estimated 400 to 600 million cases of malaria worldwide, with 2.7 million resulting deaths. Malaria was the number one cause of hospitalization for U.S. forces in Somalia and the second-leading cause among troops in Vietnam (after combat injury). Malaria researchers say that with continuous, affordable surveillance to promptly diagnose new cases, it may be possible to administer immediate, aggressive treatment and eventually eliminate the disease.

The new malaria detection method takes advantage of the unique action of malaria parasites once they infect a red blood cell. As the parasites multiply, they break down human hemoglobin and liberate heme molecules, which form crystals within the cell. When irradiated by an ultraviolet laser, these crystals produce a characteristic signal that is detected by a time-of-flight mass spectrometer. Increases in the heme signal are directly proportional to levels of parasite infection.

The technique unambiguously detects, within minutes, as few as 1-10 parasites per micoliter of blood, using a single drop of blood. Malaria diagnosis using the conventional method of optical microscopy takes an expert roughly a half an hour, and this method rarely attains the same level of sensitivity.


Software for Automated Medical Records Coding

APL's Carol Sniegoski, of the Lab's National Security Technology Department, has developed software to overcome the problem of how to quickly compile hospital emergency room initial complaint records — usually written in nonstandard text, with inconsistent spelling, vocabulary and grammar — so they can be used to monitor geographic regions for indications of chemical or biological weapons attack.

Written in Visual Basic for use with Microsoft Access data, the new software automatically processes unstructured ER complaint records in real time, using a term-based, aggregated weighting scheme to sort the records into standard disease syndrome groupings. The software is superior to present natural language processing techniques that do not work well with the error-prone, nonsyntactic text appearing in medical records.

This innovative ER monitoring software is incorporated in the widely acclaimed Essence 2 biosurveillance system, also developed at APL. The software has demonstrated near-100 percent accuracy in several tests that compared its results with those of manual syndrome groupings.

Hospitals and public health officials see applications for use in other biosurveillance systems and in automating the standard processing of hospital records.


Combined Chemical/Biological Agent Detection by Mass Spectrometry

Wayne Bryden and Scott Ecelberger, of APL's Research and Technology Development Center, joined with Robert Cotter, of the Hopkins School of Medicine, to develop technology that combines both chemical and biological sample measurements in a single, time-of-flight mass spectrometer to dramatically reduce detection and identification times.

Detection of chemical and biological samples in near real time has become much more important since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Current mass spectrometers use electron impact technology to detect low-mass-weight, volatile chemical samples, but are not suitable for higher-weight biological samples. Other mass spectrometers employ electrospray or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization — or MALDI — techniques to detect high-mass-weight nonvolatile biological samples. Existing time-of-flight instruments also require drift zone lengths of about 1 yard in order to function.

In APL's combined system, gaseous chemical samples are ionized through electron impact technology and passed to the mass spectrometer for detection and identification. Solid or liquid samples of microorganisms or nonvolatile chemicals and toxins entering the system are ionized directly by a pulsed ultraviolet or infrared laser — using MALDI — and accelerated into the mass spectrometer, where they are analyzed and identified.

The system can operate simultaneously in the electron impact and MALDI modes to enable detection of marginally volatile chemical and biological markers. The design is miniaturizable — shrinking the drift zone to about 1 foot — and features a geometry that does not limit mass range.


Last year APL researchers disclosed 123 inventions, and the Laboratory's Office of Patent Counsel filed 185 patent applications and saw 14 patents issued. The Office of Technology Transfer completed 18 new license agreements and created two spin-off companies.

Since its inception in 1999, APL's technology transfer program has executed 66 license agreements, licensed more than 80 technologies, created nine spin-off companies, and secured more than $13 million in licensing and related research and development income.

For more information about APL's technology transfer initiatives, please visit

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For information, visit