Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Paving A Path to Innovation

Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Chemical and Biological Technologies Department
Courtesy Story

Date: 03.06.2017
Posted: 03.06.2017 14:55
News ID: 225812
JSTO in the News

A primary goal of the Department of Defense’s Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative is to drive innovation in industry and government through collaboration. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Joint Science and Technology Office embraces this tenet and credits the initiative with the development of new diagnostic and detection tools for the warfighter.

One effort DTRA employs to support the initiative is hosting the Tech Watch Seminar Series, a collaborative bimonthly meeting of the minds that often leads to more rapid development of new capabilities to protect warfighters against chemical and biological threats. Hosted by JSTO’s Dr. Akbar Khan, the series engages industry, academia and national laboratories in training programs for scientists to encourage increased information sharing, networking and to introduce DTRA staff to state-of-the-art ideas. Since inception in 2009, the series has hosted more than 400 speakers and led to important industry relationships.

Utilizing industry’s speed-to-market, agility and tapping into their cutting-edge technological advancements, DTRA can more rapidly develop innovative tools for the warfighter. For example, the series was instrumental in funding Dr. LeRoy Hood’s development of new diagnostic capabilities at the Institute for Systems Biology.

Hood’s previous research in DNA sequencing was fundamental in utilizing biomarkers for new diagnostic tools. Since many agents of bioterrorism delay exhibiting symptoms in their hosts for a few days or weeks, early detection is paramount. Hood’s assay reacts before a warfighter displays visible signs of exposure by making proteins that send warning signals indicating the presence of harmful biological agents inside the body.

To do this, a single strand of nucleic acid, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), is transcribed from the specific section of DNA that codes the required proteins. The mRNA is then translated into the required protein, thus enabling the cell to provide its appropriate response. After infection with a given pathogen, early reading of the transcriptome will quickly indicate infection.

In addition, another seminar inspired JSTO’s groundbreaking work in synthetic biology with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After speaking with DTRA scientists, MIT Professor Jim Collins became aware of DTRA’s mission— to safeguard the nation against weapons of mass destruction—and knew his work could help. Collins utilized his synthetic biology research to develop an innovative, paper-based detection system for the warfighter.

His team accelerated paper-based systems by freeze-drying coupled transcription/ translation reactions onto paper demonstrating that synthetic gene circuits encoding diagnostic RNA toehold sensors can be freeze-dried and remain stable for months. Once hydrated with a clinical sample or water, the diagnostic tool is ready for action. The team demonstrated how this technique may be useful in sensing small (glucose) and large (Ebola virus RNA) molecules. These new sensors opened the door to a robust, inexpensive, mobile and safe means to conduct diagnostic biosensing in low-resource environments, which has a wide applicability for deployed warfighters.

Khan, who specializes in defeating chemical and biological threats against U.S. and coalition warfighters, conducts the seminar series and asserts the program is making strides in the scientific community. The series plays a vital role in the government’s relationship building with academia and industry to protect the warfighter from the threats of today and in the future.

To attend or nominate speakers for the series, please contact Dr. Khan.

POC: Dr. Akbar Khan; akbar.s.khan.civ@mail.mil