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May 2008 Issue

Environmental health researchers, including Tiina Reponen, PhD, Sergey Grinshpun, PhD, Atin Adhikari, PhD, and Chunlei Li, PhD, are working to develop a self-contained compound to kill biological agents.
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Grant Takes Aims at Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Amanda Harper
Published May 2008

In modern warfare, the fear factor isn’t kamikaze airplanes and guerrilla tactics.

Today, it is the threat of “weapons of mass destruction”—biological devices engineered to obliterate an entire population by injecting dangerous agents into the very air that we breathe.

It’s a frightening concept, but one that the United States needs to be prepared to combat. A group of UC bioaerosol experts hopes to do just that.

UC’s environmental health department has received a $1.3 million basic science grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to develop and test a new method they believe can kill the biological agents most likely to be used in weapons of mass destruction.

DTRA recently began awarding basic science grants for research aimed at reducing, eliminating or countering the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the battlefield and for civilians. The UC-led team is one of a few groups to receive funding for basic research this year.

Led by Sergey Grinshpun, PhD, director of UC’s Center for Health-Related Aerosol Studies, the team has partnered with researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and its business incubator, Reactive Metals Inc., to develop and validate an experimental method for deactivating biological agents using a new class of energetic materials: filled nanocomposite materials, containing nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles are microscopic particles engineered to perform specific actions in the body and in manufactured products.

The multi-institutional team’s goal is to create a single, self-
contained compound that can be released into the air after an explosion to target and kill dangerous biological agents.

“Destroying aerosolized bio-aerosol agents is very challenging,” says Grinshpun, professor of environmental health and principal investigator of the grant. “Some biological agents are resistant to environmental stress, including high temperature. Once in the air, these microorganisms and viruses can travel through the air like any other aerosolized particles and wreak havoc.”

He says the predominant thinking is that if a biological weapons storage facility is hit with an explosive device, the heat generated from the explosion will also destroy viruses and bacteria.

“But that is not necessarily the case with a microorganism that has been specifically prepared to be part of a weapon intended to
inflict massive harm,” explains Grinshpun. “That explosion may actually just help disseminate the microorganisms through the air.”

For this grant, UC and NJIT researchers will develop a prototype of the filled nanocomposite material that could be released into the air after detonation of a weapon of mass destruction.

The idea is that these materials will release specific components—iodine, for example—into the atmosphere to kill or “deactivate” the potentially lethal bacterial agents.

Small-scale tests using non-pathogenic surrogates will be conducted in specialized biosafety chambers in UC’s environmental health department. The entire process happens in milliseconds, so in order to accurately measure exposure and the effects of the pellets the research team will use an algorithm of experimental simulation that allows them to slow down the process.

Since there are thousands of species of bacteria, Grinshpun’s team has selected two low-risk simulants of microorganisms most likely targeted for use in weapons of mass destruction: Bacillus subtilis, a bacterial spore, and MS2 bacteriophage virus.

“It’s important to note that this is a laboratory study—not a real-to-life-simulation. Our goal is to understand the biological reasons a microorganism will not die after being exposed to heat stress,” explains Grinshpun. “We’re pioneering a novel method we hope will work under specific conditions, but the broad-reaching outcome of combating weapons of mass destruction is more important.”

UC’s Tiina Reponen, PhD, and Atin Adhikari, PhD, are co-investigators in this study. The team also includes Chunlei Li, PhD, a visiting fellow from Fudan University in China and graduate student Robert Eninger. Researchers Mirko Stoenitz, PhD, Edward Dreinzin, PhD, and Mike Trunov, PhD, represent the NJIT team collaborating in this study.

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