News: Chem-Bio Division ‘focused’ on saving lives
Story by Jason Bortz
FORT BELVOIR, Va. - What if warfighters had chemical-biological suits that were worn as an everyday uniform? What if it could take only weeks to decontaminate an area the size of an airfield from anthrax without causing additional damage to the environment? What if new drugs could be tested on human organ surrogates to determine effectiveness?
These are just a few of the questions that members of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department are seeking to answer as part of the Focused Innovative Technology program. The FIT program looks for innovative ideas to create solutions for chem-bio threats against our warfighters or our nation.
The program was created as a way for science and technology managers to propose new ideas for projects and then collaborate with the science community to include scientists from academia, industry and government research laboratories. External service laboratories such as the Army, Navy and Air Force have also helped identify requirements or address future needs. The results of the program have been projects that are more focused and fill known or projected gaps in chem-bio defense.
One of the FIT projects currently being worked on is a chem-bio protective garment, called Dynamic Multifunctional Materials for a Second Skin, which can be worn as an everyday uniform. Current chem-bio protection measures require troops to add additional garments to their uniforms if threats are detected, which could take several minutes after the detection of the threat.
Tracee Harris, science and technology manager for Novel Materials, DTRA CB, is currently working on a garment that could detect and protect the wearer from a chem-bio threat. The garment would actually react to a chemical or biological threat, which will significantly reduce the time needed to protect the wearer. According to Harris, the garment would also lower the thermal burden significantly over current chem-bio garments, which are cumbersome and provide limited breathability, especially when worn in high temperature environments.
The research of a garment that can react to environmental changes has caught the attention of a few companies outside of the Department of Defense, such as ski clothing manufacturers.
"I am looking forward to the future impact that Dynamic Multifunctional Materials for a Second Skin Program will have; not only in providing an enhanced [chem-bio] capability to the warfighter, but in the day-to-day lives of civilians,” said Harris. “This broadened scope is where the myriad of possible uses for this kind of fundamental technology developmental effort exist."
Being able to decontaminate a large area from anthrax is another project that is part of the FIT program. Current methods of removing anthrax require a large amount of oxidizing agents that can pose a threat to the environment and equipment in the area. The current methods of decontamination may also take years to remove the anthrax from an area.
Dr. Revel Phillips, science and technology manager for Protection and Hazard Mitigation, DTRA CB, is working on a project that could decontaminate a large area that has been exposed to anthrax in only a few weeks without damaging the environment or materials within the area. Phillips is looking at ways to germinate the spores, or target molecules that only attack the spores, which reduces side effects to the environment.
To help find a method to disseminate an anthrax decontamination agent, Phillips has looked outside of the Department of Defense for methods used by other industries. He has worked with agrochemical companies to examine how they deliver chemicals to large areas with exact precision. Phillips has seen how planes or tractors using global positioning sensors can deliver treatments to an area in a very exacting method without risking operators. By combining these methods with a better decontamination agent, Phillips goal is to be able to completely decontaminate an area from anthrax spores in only four weeks.
Despite every effort to prevent a chem-bio attack, there will always be a risk that it could happen. Having vaccines or drugs to administer to those exposed could potentially save thousands of lives. Developing drugs to counter the effects of a chem-bio attack are costly and can take years to develop. One problem is testing the drugs in animal models and/or human tissue to determine if they are non-toxic, but drugs can be in development for years before they even reach this stage of development.
Dr. Clint Florence, acting senior manager, Medical S and T Division, Vaccines Chemical and Biological Technologies, DTRA CB, is developing a method to use human organ surrogates as a way to test new medicines. The program is titled eX Vivo Capability for Evaluation and Licensure (XCEL) it will consist of platforms that will be able to replicate the human heart, liver, lung, vascular, blood brain barrier or kidney. The platforms, which will consist of human tissue, will allow for the testing of drugs earlier in the development stage. By testing drugs early, drugs that are not effective can be eliminated and successful drugs can be streamlined. The testing of the drugs will provide human relevance that has not been possible in the past.
"I have high confidence that we [DTRA CB] will be able to predict toxicity levels of drugs early, which will drive production of countermeasures," said Florence on his expectation of XCEL.
DTRA CB continues to look for innovative ideas that can save the lives of warfighters and protect our nation. The FIT program strives to meet those goals and it is the work of the members of DTRA CB that will lead to the overall success of DTRA CB and the safety of our nation.