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The New Defenders 

An explosion of federal funding has Bay Area researchers at the forefront of America's counter-terrorism program. Will the money make us safer - or just make science a military secret?

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
Only months after terrorists used airliners to decimate the World Trade Center and anthrax to shut down Congress, the United States hosted the Winter Olympics in Utah. During the Games, a Bay Area team won a gold medal -- in the peace and security competition.

Before the Olympics began, about 40 people -- many of them scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- took over the Utah Department of Public Health. They came armed with black boxes, each about the size of a fax machine, that had been developed at Livermore and constitute perhaps the highest achievement in American counterterrorism technology: the DNA analyzer.

These boxes (which also come in a smaller, brick-size version known as the Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer) use a biochemical process called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to analyze the genetic material of living organisms suspended in water samples. Then, via a computerized system of fluorescent tagging and matching, the machine compares those analyses with the DNA patterns of anthrax and other known agents of biological warfare or terror. (For security reasons, the Livermore lab will not say exactly what it is able to identify.)

Another, less developed machine, the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System, is designed to continuously "sniff" the air in a building or arena, much like a smoke detector, and analyze the DNA of certain pathogens that might be present.

The systems, of course, are primarily aimed at detecting biological hazards so that people can be evacuated before they're infected in a bioterror attack, or at least be treated before they're too sick. A side benefit of DNA-sniffing research is that once sniffing for bioterror agents such as anthrax, bubonic plague, botulism, and smallpox has been mastered, it's a short technological step to sniffing for other organisms. So-called sick buildings might soon be diagnosed with the same type of DNA analyzer used this winter in Salt Lake City. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that commercial rights to the handheld analyzer and its larger cousins have been licensed to private firms in Maryland and Texas.

And in exactly this way, counterterrorism appears to be on the verge of becoming a new growth industry -- one that will have a huge impact on the Bay Area science community and economy.

A handful of Bay Area laboratories are poised to receive a payload of federal money targeted at national security research in the biotechnology and information technology fields. In June, President George W. Bush signed the Public Health, Security, and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act, which earmarked nearly $3 billion for counterterrorism measures, including biotechnology research and development. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's budget for its Non-Proliferation, Arms Control, and International Security Directorate, which includes counterterrorism research, jumped $80 million in the past year. And the National Institutes of Health -- the major funding source for biological research at the University of California campuses -- have increased funding related to infectious disease by more than 16 percent.

Certainly, the federal money is being welcomed by local scientists, and research is proceeding apace. Livermore's air-sniffing systems are only a few in a host of technological gadgets that seem like science fiction but are as real as ground zero: a portable neutron detector that can examine cargo containers, from the outside, for nuclear weapons; human antibodies, manufactured in the lab, that can fight the deadly infections of biological weaponry; microbes that can seek out and neutralize bioterror agents; and information technology that can trace almost any chemical compound or recognize speech, eye, and fingerprint patterns.

But the new era of government-funded counterterror research has already begun to raise fundamental questions about control.

Many scientists are wondering whether, in an age when disease can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, biological research may soon be shrouded in the type of secrecy that characterized nuclear research efforts during the Cold War -- a secrecy that undermines the scientific openness that, many researchers feel, has led to U.S. pre-eminence in the biotechnology field.

There is also growing discomfort among researchers with a new reality: To have worked scientifically with certain biological agents is to be, like federal anthrax researcher Steven Hatfill, a suspect when terror strikes.

Regulators, meanwhile, are wrestling with entirely new paths for the approval of biological discoveries that have anti-terror applications as well as other uses that might be marketed to the public at large. For theoretical example, if and when a multipurpose anti-bioterror vaccine becomes available, who will make the profit on its sale?

The infrastructure for counterterror research is being configured as you read this story. The balance between government funding and government control of what is almost certain to become one of the nation's major growth industries is being struck -- but on an ad hoc basis, with little public debate, and almost nothing that might be called long-term planning.

By the time anthrax showed up in a Senate office building just a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, much of the Livermore lab was already operating on 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shifts. Its scientists had been deployed all over the country; at the World Trade Center collapse, they monitored the air for contamination.

Dr. Page Stoutland, deputy division leader of an area in the Livermore lab named R-Division, is very tall and thin and more easygoing than you might think for a man with his responsibility. Stoutland is in charge of projects having to do with chemical and biological national security programs, nuclear response activities, and the forensics of weapons of mass destruction.

Environmental monitoring -- particularly the detection of harmful pathogens such as anthrax -- is Stoutland's specialty. He started the project to develop a biodetection system before he left the Department of Energy's Chemical and Biological Non-Proliferation Program in 2000. Government agencies had been thinking seriously about bioterrorism since the Persian Gulf War, but even with the ability to direct research at a national laboratory, it's a long process to get from thinking about something to designing research, and then securing funding for the research, and then doing actual laboratory work that shows results.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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