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Biodefense expert describes on technology development to combat bioterrorism

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by Vivian Cooper-Capps
Harnessing honeybees to collect samples of pathogens? Hooking up single cells to serve as “canaries in the coal mine” to warn of biological attack?

According to a biodefense expert visiting Vanderbilt this week, these are just two of a number of unusual ideas being explored by the U.S. government to protect Americans against biological terrorism.

Developing “ways to defend our borders against pathogens purposively perpetrated” will require quick, creative and cohesive action by academic researchers, government agencies, healthcare providers and industry, according to Alan S. Rudolph, program manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Rudolph, who oversees several biodefense research areas for DARPA, spoke to Vanderbilt faculty and students on Tuesday, Oct. 15, on “The Science and Technology of a Robust Biodefense.”

His visit was sponsored by the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education, one of the new Vanderbilt trans-institutional initiatives, and the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering. In his presentation, Rudolph highlighted a device, called a nanophysiometer, that can measure and record metabolic signals from isolated, living cells so they can serve as a detector to monitor chemical or biological warfare threats being developed for DARPA at VIIBRE.

The agency is currently emphasizing development of tools like the nanophysiometer that can “rapidly determine the environmental presence and pre-symptomatic exposure to biological warfare pathogens and toxins,” Rudolph said. Although he cited areas such as this in which significant progress is being made, he also pointed out that considerable challenges remain.

Foremost among these challenges is the complexity of the problem, with an unknown array of pathogens, as-yet-unplumbed secrets of the human cell and the need to coordinate efforts across institutional, discipline and market segment lines.

“How can we do better anomaly detection against a complex background?” he asked. “We don’t really have time to wait ten years for the next generation of bioscience to be developed.”

Another challenge, he said, is the lack of industrial partnership to manufacture products invented by researchers. “We don’t have a BioBoeing,” he said.

Rudolph manages high-risk, high pay-off multidisciplinary research and development projects in biotechnology, including the design and fabrication of such devices as sensors, diagnostics and prosthetics.

His visit included a presentation on neurotechnology Oct. 16 at the Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Posted 10/17/02 at 10:00 a.m.

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