New Ideas in the War on Bioterrorism

October 10, 2001 | Source: New York Times

Ideas for better technology to detect, diagnose and treat biological agents are currently being pursued in the nation’s newest medical battle -— the war against bioterrorism.
There are dozens of pathogens that might conceivably be used in an attack, including some unnatural ones made by genetic engineering, and it would be impractical to develop vaccines for all of them. So the new battle will be fought with the tools of biotechnology, genomics and immunology.

The genomes of microbes can now be sequenced in a matter of weeks, giving new insights into their structure. In the last two weeks one group of scientists at Harvard Medical School reported finding a gene variation that makes mice resistant to anthrax, and another group said it had designed a molecule that protected rats against normally lethal doses of anthrax toxin.

Other projects include training bees to sniff out chemical or biological agents, a sensor using a slice of rat brain on top of an electronic chip that can sense the brain tissue’s reaction when exposed to a harmful substance, biological and chemical agent sensors to monitor the air in public places, a device that can do a genetic test for a pathogen in 30 minutes, a disinfectant concoction made of microscopic droplets of soybean oil, drugs that can kill virtually all bacteria, drugs that could disable RNA that is common to all bacteria and to a wide variety of viruses, and drugs with DNA segments that put the immune system on high alert.