Tag Archives: biological warfare

Robo-Cells Killing Bacteria

Fuligo septica, the "dog vomit" slime mold. image from wkipedia

Johns Hopkins University researchers are setting out to design and test self-directed microscopic warriors that can locate and neutralize dangerous strains of bacteria…[The goal] s to devise a prototype biocontrol system that can dispatch single-cell fighters to track down and engulf specific pathogens, rendering them harmless. The funding was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly called DARPA.

Possible first targets in this proof-of-concept project include Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s disease; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial strain that is the second-leading cause of infections found in hospitals. If the project succeeds, these tiny infection-fighters might one day be dispatched to curtail lethal microbes lurking in medical settings. Eventually, they could also be used to cleanse contaminated soil or possibly defend against bioterror attacks.

An important goal of the project is that each of the proposed soldier cells must carry out its own mission without relying on step-by-step commands from a remote human operator.

“Once you set up this biocontrol system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,” said Pablo A. Iglesias.”…In a similar way, the biocontrol systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes.”

These experts plan to biologically embed search-and-surround orders within a familiar type of amoeba cell called Dictyostelium discoideum [slime mold]. These widely studied microbes, commonly found in damp soil such as riverbeds, typically engulf and dine on bacteria, which are much smaller.  “These amoebas possess receptors that can detect the biochemical ‘scents’ emitted by bacteria,” Robinson said. “Our goal is to use concepts from control theory to design a ‘super amoeba’ that can recognize a particular bad guy—a specific type of disease-causing bacteria—and then move toward and attack these target cells.”  Robinson added: “The plan is to develop amoebas that are super-sensitive to these bacterial signals and home in on them as though they were a plate piled high with fresh chocolate chip cookies. The goal is to make these amoebas behave as though this is the most natural thing to do.”.. But if the project is successful, the researchers say the single-cell fighters could eventually be introduced into the cooling and ventilation system in a hospital, where they could feast on the bacteria that are currently causing dangerous infections. One possible method of introducing the infection fighters into such systems might be through use of a spray solution.

Iglesias noted that initial efforts will focus on bacteria lurking outside, not within the body.  “In this contract, we are not targeting bacteria in human blood,” he said, “but the hope is that the techniques we develop would ultimately be useful for that.”

Excerpts from Phil Sneiderman, Johns Hopkins researchers aim to design self-driving cells to pursue deadly bacteria, John Hopkins University, Feb. 2, 2016

60 Days to Save the World

A dendritic cell. image from wikipedia

The US military supports US Government responses to public health emergencies such as Ebola, which can cause regional destabilization and spread through global travel. Warfighters must also operate in regions where diseases like chikungunya and dengue are endemic, and even seemingly mild challenges like seasonal influenza affect force readiness. In addition to these naturally occurring threats, terrorists and other potential adversaries have a growing palette of biological tools to engineer new biological threats. Existing capabilities to respond to an outbreak and develop therapeutics often take years or even decades to achieve results. Recent examples of public health emergencies have demonstrated a national and global inability to develop effective preventive or therapeutic solutions in a relevant timescale when an infectious threat emerges. The threat of infectious agents on US and global national security can be mitigated if the DoD has the capability to rapidly deploy and impart near-immediate immunity to military personnel and civilian populations for known and newly emerging pathogens.

The goal of P3 is to achieve an integrated capability that can deliver pandemic prevention countermeasures to patients within 60 days of an outbreak. P3 aims to revolutionize outbreak response by enabling rapid discovery, characterization, production, and testing of efficacious medical countermeasures. P3 will innovate in the following areas: (1) Generation of virus stock (including viral unknowns); (2) Rapid evolution of antibody candidates; and (3) Gene-encoded antibody delivery methods.

Excerpts from  The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Proposers Day March 2, 2017 

The Manipulation of Insects: DARPA

Insect Allies program DARPA

DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office s working on new Insect Allies program. Insect Allies will seek to develop vector[insect]-mediated modification technologies for mature plants to rapidly counter environmental and biological threats to crops. Threats might include pathogens, pests, drought, and salinity, among others. DARPA believes that the high specificity of genetic modification coupled with quick plant gene uptake could allow crops to be protected from threats within a single growing season.The Proposers Day will be held on November 18, 2016

Excerpt from  DARPA Press Release Insect Allies Proposers Day, Nov. 2016

Biological Weapons Proliferation: spreading desease

mers

The World Health Organisation (WHO), animal health and national defence officers called for wider international co-operation to avoid the spread of animal diseases that could be used as biological weapons.  Sixty percent of human diseases come from animal agents and 80% of the agents that could be used for bio-terrorism are of animal origin, said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

“History has shown animal diseases have often been used as weapons before. Advances in genetics can now make them even more harmful. So we are calling for further investment to be made at national level on bio-security,” Vallat said at a conference on biological threat reduction.  Diseases have spread from animals to humans for millennia, with latest examples including the bird flu virus that has killed hundreds of people around the globe.

The OIE and the WHO warned animal disease agents could escape naturally, accidentally but also intentionally from laboratories, to be used as bio-weapons….Security breaches involving animal diseases are not rare.  The Pentagon said in May 2015 and June the US military had sent live samples of anthrax, which can be used as biological weapon, to five countries outside the United States and to dozens of US labs.

Excerpts from Beware of animal diseases as biological weapons, health experts say, Reuters, June 30, 2015

How to See Behind a Brick Wall: DARPA REVEALs

photon as wave packet. image from wikipedia

From the DARPA website on project  Revolutionary Enhancement of Visibility by Exploiting Active Light-fields (REVEAL) program  

Imagine, for example, squad members patrolling a street in a deployed urban environment, and an armed assailant crouching behind a car or a concrete barrier. Without the benefit of different vantage points (from the air, for example), the squad could be blind to the hidden threat. If by chance a glass storefront window were behind the assailant, the squad might spot the assailant’s reflection in the window. But if the backdrop were a brick wall, there would be no visible reflection. By exploiting currently untapped aspects of light and the varied paths of photons bouncing off the brick wall, troops using hardware based on the theoretical foundations provided by REVEAL might someday be able to detect the otherwise hidden assailant [or see clearly what people are doing inside their homes].

Another potential application could be determining an unknown material’s composition and other properties from a safe distance, avoiding the potential danger associated with close proximity and physical examination. Based on information carried by the photons interacting with the material, it may be possible for troops in the future to identify radioactive, biological or chemical threats and camouflaged targets from much farther away than currently possible.

See also FBO

On-Demand Germs: Bio-engineering for defense or offense

Parallel telomere quadruple

From the DARPA website

The development of increasingly sophisticated techniques and tools to sequence, synthesize and manipulate genetic material has led to the rapidly maturing discipline of synthetic biology. …[But] The costs of maintaining required environmental controls and detecting and compensating for genetic alterations are substantial and severely limit the widespread application of synthetic biology to U.S. national security missions.

To help address these challenges, DARPA has created the Biological Robustness in Complex Settings (BRICS)  BRICS seeks to develop the fundamental understanding and component technologies needed to increase the biological robustness and stability of engineered organisms while maintaining or enhancing the safe application of those organisms in complex biological environments. The goal is to create the technical foundation for future engineered biological systems to achieve greater biomedical, industrial and strategic potential.

“By making these systems more robust, stable and safe, BRICS seeks to harness the full range of capabilities at the intersection of engineering and biology,” said Justin Gallivan, DARPA program manager. “These capabilities could include efficient on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, fuels, sensors and coatings; or engineered microbes able to optimize human health by treating or preventing disease.”

Excerpt from BUILDING THE FOUNDATION FOR FUTURE SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY APPLICATIONS WITH BRICS
July 29, 2014

Predator Bacteria: the DARPA program

melioidosis

The  Pathogen Predators Program of DARPA would represent a significant departure from conventional antibacterial therapies that rely on small molecule antibiotics. While antibiotics have been remarkably effective in the past, their widespread use has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections that are difficult or impossible to treat. In vitro studies have shown that predators such as Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus and Micavibrio aeruginosavorus can prey upon more than one hundred different human pathogens and will also prey on multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The Pathogen Predators program will answer three fundamental questions about bacterial predators:

1) Are predators toxic to recipient (host) organisms?
2) Against what pathogens (prey) are predators effective?
3) Can pathogens develop resistance to predation?

This list [of bacteria that could be killed by predator bacteria] includes NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Category A and B threats to national security:

NIAID Category A and B
Yersinia pestis (i.e. plague)
Francisella tularensis (i.e. tularemia)
Brucella species
Coxiella burnetii (i.e. Q fever)
Rickettsia prowazekii (i.e.  typhus)
Burkholderia mallei (i.e. glanders)
Burkholderia pseudomallei (i.e. melioidosis)

Source DARRA (pdf)

The Next Pandemic and the United States Military

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge [including also due to biological warfare]. As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge. WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.” In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.

In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk. A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease. Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats. One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month….“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic, July 25, 2012 (from the website of DARPA)

Biosecurity: Censuring Research on Bird Flu

In December 2011 the scientific world was taken aback by an odd request. The American government, in the shape of the country’s National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), called on the world’s two leading scientific journals to censor research. Nature and Science were about to publish studies by researchers who had been tinkering with H5N1 influenza, better known as bird flu, to produce a strain that might be able to pass through the air between people. The NSABB fretted that were the precise methods and detailed genetic data to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate. They suggested that only the broad conclusions be made public; the specifics could be sent to vetted scientists only….

The WHO, for its part, said in a statement to Science that research like that of Dr Fouchier and Dr Kawaoka is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts”. The organisation also worries that limiting access to relevant findings would be difficult to square with its recently updated pandemic influenza preparedness framework. This agreement, which stipulates that countries which provide virus samples should also receive the benefits of research, was preceded by four years of rancorous debate. If anything can be said for certain, then, it is that the gulf between those in favour of tighter controls and those against will be hard to bridge in a mere two months.

Excerpt, Flu research and public safety: Influenza and its complications, Economist, Jan. 28, at 77

Covert Biological Warfare, the unknown bioengineered disease outbreak

The following is from a Press Release of the  US Department of Defense

The global nature of terrorism and the growing potential of nations and individuals to acquire weapons of mass destruction drive the Defense Department’s effort to counter these threats, the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs said….

To keep terrorist groups from getting access to materials needed to construct biological weapons, he said, DOD has helped strengthen biosecurity at laboratories in the United States.   “We also have launched a program working with partners around the world to make sure public health and veterinary laboratories that have dangerous pathogen strains that cause diseases like anthrax and ebola are better secured,” the assistant secretary said.  Some kinds of biological attacks by terrorists, he said, could look at first just like natural disease outbreaks.  “We might not know about it until people or even animals show up sick or start dying,” he said, “so the best thing you can do [is] to have a global early warning system for biological attacks, whether they are deliberate or natural.”

The Defense Department has several programs that involve global biosurveillance, Weber said, including the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, or GEIS, a division of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.  For 50 years, he said, DOD has had a network of biomedical laboratories in countries around the world that are part of this system.  The laboratories allow DOD scientists to develop drugs for rare diseases that are not endemic in the United States but that may be in countries where U.S. forces are deployed, Weber said.  “…“The Department of Defense has a liaison officer assigned to WHO Headquarters,” he said, “and recently the U.S. government signed an agreement with WHO [to fund] some efforts to enhance capabilities around the world to monitor infectious diseases.”

“With the revolution in biotechnology … the range of threats is potentially infinite,” Weber said, “so we need a rapid response capability after exposure, once we identify what is causing the disease, to develop a drug quickly, within weeks or days, rather than the years … it takes now.”..“Agencies like DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency have been very active in funding biodefense research,” Weber said.  The focus, he said, is on finding rapid ways to respond to a biological attack from an unknown agent, quickly characterize it and develop a countermeasure.  “Rather than having a drug or a vaccine for every potential [threat],” Weber said, “we need a capability to respond quickly, to be able to characterize what is causing illness, and then to develop as quickly as possible a medical countermeasure to save lives.”

By Cheryl Pellerin, Global Nature of Terrorism Drives Biosurveillance, American Forces Press Service, DOD, Oct. 27, 2011