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NECE’s Project Sea Raven Delivers Cutting-Edge Pathogen Detection Technology to the Fleet

In support of Pacific Partnership 2018, the entomologists and civilian staff of the Navy Entomology Center of Excellence (NECE) delivered cutting-edge technology for disease surveillance to the crew of the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19).

While the ship was docked in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, NECE connected with the Mercy’s microbiology division to provide a newly-developed pathogen detection kit as well as the training to put it to use.

Pathogens are basically any disease-causing agent, such as viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Identifying pathogens for Sailors and Marines is crucial to ensuring the health and mission readiness of our nation’s warfighters.

The mission was part of NECE’s Project Sea Raven, an effort that is based on providing a highly mobile, complete pathogen surveillance and warfighter protection kit that can deploy to anywhere in the world with our Sailors and Marines. Project Sea Raven’s capabilities are not limited to just insects – it can test anything from blood to soil and water.

The NECE team consisted of Lt. Cmdr. Ian Sutherland, Lt. Matthew Montgomery and Mr. Alden Estep, all of whom have been at the forefront of incorporating the kit into Navy medicine’s capabilities.

Lt. Cmdr. Sutherland, NECE’s technical director, devised Project Sea Raven as a way to increase disease detection capabilities during deployments where new pathogens are frequently encountered and in conditions that make traditional laboratory equipment and methods unworkable.

The kit was presented to Lt. Rebecca Pavlicek, the USNS Mercy’s microbiology division officer, and her division, which is responsible for the study of bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic pathogens that could affect mission readiness in addition to helping Pacific Partnership nations improve their disease response capabilities.

Funded through a grant from the Defense Health Agency’s (DHA) Global Emerging Infections Surveillance (GEIS) Program, Project Sea Raven is modeled after the MinION system, which is a DNA and RNA sequencing kit.

Built for deployments and field settings, MinION is incredibly light and portable – the entire kit consists of a laptop computer and a small USB device, approximately the size of a cellphone, into which the individual testing cells are inserted. The system works by running purified DNA through an electric current that generates a complete sequence for all genetic information contained in a sample.

Similar to MinION, Project Sea Raven brings rapid results (pathogens can be identified in as little as four hours) and a broader range of pathogens, which can be identified through sequencing.

“The major difference is that Project Sea Raven’s use of sequencing gives us the ability to see so much more than traditional testing,” said Sutherland. “Beyond simple detection, a single sample can be probed numerous times for known and emerging pathogens. You can find multiple viruses, bacteria and fungi from a single sample. You can even look for genetic markers for drug resistance and other important characteristics in those pathogens.”

The joint NECE and Pacific Partnership exercise demonstrated the technology’s ease of use and broad detection abilities.

By the end of the first day of training, the USNS Mercy’s microbiology division was running actual samples from the ship’s medical ward. Because the kit does not require refrigeration or even an internet connection, Project Sea Raven is ideal for shipboard disease surveillance.

For Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Julian Taylor, medical laboratory technician, the biggest improvement was the amount of time needed to prepare a sample.

“It used to take hours to prepare a sample for testing, but with this, it’s about 15 minutes,” said Taylor.

Project Sea Raven is now an integral part of the ship’s microbiology capacity. As Pacific Partnership 2018 continues, the USNS Mercy will take its new pathogen surveillance capabilities to Vietnam and wherever the ship will provide medical assistance.

For the Sea Raven team, this endeavor represents a culmination of NECE’s commitment to pushing the latest in disease detection technology to the fleet and warfighter.

“This is just the beginning of getting the best disease detection tools to our Fleet’s medical departments,” said Sutherland.

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