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Naval Medical Research
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NMRC Biological Defense Research Directorate

Sailors wearing gas masksU.S. military medical researchers have focused on how to defend against the threat of biological and chemical warfare since World War I. With recent conflicts and terrorist attacks, the threat of bioterrorism has quickly risen to the consciousness of the general public. The threatened deliberate use of biological agents as weapons in the future may require infectious diseases to be classified as battlefield related and will be extremely serious to the unprepared.

For nearly 15 years, the Biological Defense Research Directorate (BDRD) at NMRC has researched ways to protect military personnel in the event of a biological attack. They have become a leader in the field of detection, including hand-held assays, molecular diagnostics, and confirmatory analysis. More recently, NMRC researchers have made great strides in developing a new DNA-based vaccine to protect against anthrax.

For more information, please email the Public Affairs Officer at svc.pao.nmrc@med.navy.mil.

National Testing and Analysis

BDRD serves as a national resource providing testing and analysis for the presence of anthrax and other potential biological hazards. Its portable laboratory, the only one of its kind devoted to detecting biological agents, was deployed to conduct tests at the Pentagon following the crash of American Airlines flight 77 on 11 September 2001 and deployed to New York City to assist with biodetection.

After the subsequent anthrax attacks in October 2001, BDRD analyzed more than 16,000 samples from the Capitol. They detected the presence of anthrax at Hart Senate Office Building, the Supreme Court, and several area mail processing facilities. The laboratory was also present at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, available to analyze samples to ensure safety at the games.

Departments

Functional Genomics

  • Utilize microarray technologies to resequence genomic regions of biological warfare agents rapidly. Completed a study of genome variation in 55 Bacillus anthracis strains using an Affymetrix resequencing microarray.
  • Employ genomic variation data to improve the identification of biological warfare agents, characterize patterns of DNA sequence and strain variation, determine targets for novel vaccine development, and develop additional PCR-based detection assays.
  • Determined that the Bacillus cereus strain G9241, which causes an anthrax-like disease, has enhanced virulence for mice.

Immunodiagnostics

  • Provide rapid diagnostics and detection assays for field identification of biothreat agents
  • Develop biosensor-linked automated detection systems with real-time capability
  • Produce antibodies for the detection of new and emerging disease threats
  • Transition rapid detection assays to operational forces

Medical Countermeasures

BDRD researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at Ohio State University, have expanded their focus to encompass developing a new-generation vaccine to improve immunization against anthrax.

preparing injectionThe new DNA-based vaccine may require only two shots and be effective against anthrax in just six weeks, thereby fully immunizing the patient in a fraction of the time currently required. If successful, it would simplify the vaccination process of military personnel, who are often moved during the 18-month span the current vaccine requires. DNA formulations may also offer advantages in handling and storage, which are important considerations for stockpiling.

In collaboration with Ohio State University and Vical Inc., researchers identified key anthrax immunogens and verified that they can be delivered by formulated DNA. They found that by combining two immunogens, Protective Antigen (PA) and Lethal Factor (LA), they can provide broader protection than the currently licensed anthrax vaccine or a single recombinant protein vaccine.

This program protects the health and welfare of the military population and helps ensure the success of military operations. In addition, it advances our knowledge of these agents and the diseases they cause, thereby improving measures to protect public health.

Microbiology/Operations

  • Provide material research and development support through the operation of the BSL-3 laboratory.
  • Provide specialty analysis of samples for the presence and identification of biological threats.
  • Develop a rapidly deployable biothreat agent identification laboratory incorporating immunological, molecular, and microbiological identification techniques.
  • Optimize technologies that allow rapid and specific identification of infectious agents.

Molecular Diagnostics

BDRD pioneered the development of small hand-held assays that identify most of the common biological threats, including anthrax. The DoD, FBI, and the Secret Service routinely use these assays, which identify the biological agent within 15 minutes. These assays were selected by the Joint Program Office for Biological Defense as the standard assay produced for the DoD.

lab workerScientists at NMRC also developed real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) based diagnostics for confirmatory testing. These confirmatory assays are based on the DNA sequence of a particular biological agent. BDRD's anthrax assays are the standard assays for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The final step in the confirmation process, definitive testing, can then be done at the NMRC laboratories in their Bio-Safety Level 3 facility.

The first portable laboratory capable of conducting molecular detection was developed by the BDRD in 1991. This unique laboratory allows military personnel in the field to quickly conduct confirmatory assays to determine whether biological agents are present. It was deployed in Desert Storm/Desert Shield, and similar capabilities were deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The portable lab currently weighs approximately 1,000 pounds and requires three people to run it. It can be checked onto commercial airlines and requires only gas and motor oil to operate. The portable laboratory holds supplies sufficient to process about 150 samples with PCR and ELISA testing. It also includes protective gear for the personnel, a generator, a freezer, field lighting, and field uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

In a related area of research, scientists are also working on the development of a more sensitive diagnostic field test to quickly determine whether humans have been exposed to biological agents. This would be especially helpful in combat situations, where it is difficult to move a full field laboratory. The sooner an exposure is detected, the sooner treatment can begin. Identifying anthrax is difficult, especially in field conditions, where equipment and technologies are limited.

Naval Medical Research Center