FORT BELVOIR, Va.— Military scientists are often criticized for not working fast enough and for not pushing technologies into the field more expeditiously. Those working in chemical and biological sciences are no exception.
At the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, researchers are finding ways to compress the cycle so they can respond to future attacks that could come in the form of deadly viruses or toxic agents. They worry that advances in biological and chemical sciences are making it easy for would-be terrorists to wield nature’s compounds and bugs for deleterious purposes.
Last year’s H1N1 pandemic demonstrated how a highly transmissible virus could wreak havoc in a matter of weeks.
“It is clear that a pandemic contagious disease is an enormous threat to this country and the world,” said Bill Huff, chief of the chemical and biological operations division at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
“We cannot take our eye off the biological or chemical attack,” said Huff. “We have to continue to be vigilant in that arena and continue to develop the technologies that will enable our forces to withstand and operate and successfully defeat a chemical or biological attack.”
Keeping up with next-generation chemical agents and bioengineering threats is a constant burden. “There’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done,” said Huff. Developing the technologies to counter the unforeseeable remains the biggest challenge, he added. “What if we get hit with an unknown? How do we rapidly respond?”
Army Col. Michael O’Keefe, acting director of the chemical and biological technologies directorate, said the agency is also looking for talent outside the government.
Reaching out to scientists who may not be working on chem-bio defense projects per se can be a challenge. But the connections are being made and some are yielding benefits to ongoing projects.
Take Omar Yaghi for example. The University of California-Los Angeles chemistry professor probably never thought of his research as having a defense application. He is working on chemical compounds to improve hydrogen storage capabilities for fuel cell-powered cars. DTRA tapped into his research on compounds that soak up chemicals. These compounds, called metal-organic frameworks, have tiny spaces where chemical agents can be absorbed. Then they can be decontaminated or destroyed by reactive elements.
“That type of cutting-edge science could end up in a protective suit the war fighter wears,” said O’Keefe.
Troops today have to don a bulky suit that merely absorbs chemicals. In the future, their field uniforms may incorporate Yaghi’s compounds, which would allow the fabric to absorb chemical agents, self-detoxify and automatically report that a reaction has occurred, he explained.
“We’re probably within a handful of years of being able to have technology that could feed into that,” said O’Keefe. “The technology is closer than it’s ever been.”
Metal-organic frameworks are not limited to fabrics and materials; they could be incorporated into a powder that could be spread on the ground to decontaminate items and areas or used in filtration systems for buildings.
The government wants to leverage the work that non-defense researchers are doing, said Eric Moore, chief of the basic and supporting science division. “Many times that requires science managers to look at areas of research that they normally wouldn’t invest in to see if there are some pearls over there, some gems that they could pull into the program,” he said.
Ngai Wong, the senior science and technology manager for detection in chemical and biological defense, has an annual budget of $60 million. “The leveraging that I do between other government agencies would bring the value into the quarter-billion dollar range.”
The chem-bio technologies directorate is shifting focus from protecting against known chemical and biological agents to defending against future, still unidentified threats, said O’Keefe.
In the past, defense programs focused on conventional chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, VX and sarin.
Now it’s time to worry about emerging threats, said John Harvey, principal deputy for the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.
Wong said the intent is to be able to detect an organism or chemical and ascertain whether it’s a potential menace. His team is working with the National Institutes of Health in human genome sequencing and applying it to chem-bio detection capabilities.
“The goal here is a handheld genomic device that’s a very accurate detection device,” said Richard Pate, deputy chief of the physical science and technology division.
A major concern is making sensors small and reliable enough for military use.
“That’s where a lot of our resources end up going. It’s not so much in the development of the science itself, but to make sure that the technology actually works the way we think it will,” said Wong.
It could take a decade to miniaturize a system, but some capabilities could be fielded sooner. “It will not be handheld, but it will still increase by orders of magnitude what we’re doing today,” said Wong.
The division is collaborating with the Energy Department’s national laboratories to build a 10- to 20-year roadmap of how scientists would apply nanoscience to miniaturize various devices. “It’s a big effort to keep current with the ongoing science,” said Pate.
In bio-warfare research, scientists have traditionally focused on agents such as anthrax. But in recent years, the emphasis has shifted to infectious diseases, Huff said.
Medical programs are stressing pre-symptomatic diagnostics rather than diagnosing patients with a disease after they show up with initial symptoms.
“That allows us to open up windows of intervention, before people become ill,” said O’Keefe. “That’s a harder challenge. It involves looking for unique bio-markers that could indicate exposure, and we’re employing things like systems biology to help us search for relevant bio-markers.”
Richard Hedstrom, deputy of the medical science and technology division, said there’s a movement to accelerate the development of new products. The so-called translational medicine has been a huge change. “It’s caused basic scientists to think more carefully, to think about how to get this science into a product, something useful that physicians can use to treat people,” he said.
In the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon called for investments in capabilities to respond to bio-engineered pathogens and emerging infectious diseases. The Defense Department set up the Transformational Medical Technologies Initiative in order to develop therapeutics that could be applied to multiple threats, said Harvey.
This “one drug for many bugs” concept has taken off and yielded two products that were accepted for trials by the Food and Drug Administration a year ago, said David Hough, director of the program. One drug treats Ebola and the other Marburg, both hemorrhagic fever viruses. Those are moving into clinical trials early next year, said Hough.
The Defense Department has added funds in fiscal 2010 and 2011 to strengthen that program, said Harvey.
When the H1N1 outbreak began last year, government officials took samples of the virus and sent them to Columbia University as part of a rapid-response exercise. The lab was able to identify and characterize the pathogen in less than 24 hours. The sequencing information was sent on to AVI BioPharma, a company in Corvallis, Ore. Its “antisense platform” forms the basis of the two investigational drugs that the government is moving into clinical trials.
“They were able to modify that in 72 hours and give us a hospital medical countermeasure, which we took to animal testing and showed that we could knock out 99.9 percent of viral titer using this particular drug,” said Hough. Viral titer is the level of live virus in a fluid or tissue sample.
A second test involving an unknown pathogen and four laboratories also proved out the rapid-response capability to identify the sample. All four labs were able to interact with a database set up at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “That was proof that the mechanics worked. Even the electrons flowed and we were able to share information,” said Hough.
In August, the team plans to conduct a similar exercise in South Korea. It will take a clinical sample of a dead virus, transport it back to the United States and see how rapidly the labs can identify or characterize it, and then determine the best course of treatment.
“In the three and a half years of the program, we’ve had some pretty good successes and we’re moving forward rapidly into some new areas,” said Hough. “We’re maturing that rapid-response capability and our medical countermeasure development, depending more on systems biology now than ever before. It’s a major change.”
DTRA is working with the Food and Drug Administration to get approval for the antisense backbone, said Hough.
Developing a therapeutic against an emergent pathogen could take anywhere from five to 10 years. “Our goal is to do it in a matter of weeks,” he said.
Hough also oversees a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program that is called the accelerated manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. New processes and technologies to manufacture vaccines may speed up production time to days instead of months.