As concern about terrorism has increased over the past decade, so has federal support for defense-related bioscience research. A team of scientists led by Arizona State University is one beneficiary of this elevated priority–to the tune of $40.8 million.
The new program, funded in December via a contract from the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), focuses on helping first responders provide appropriate medical treatment in the event of a radiological or nuclear disaster. The program aims to develop prototype devices that can rapidly assess a large population to detect individual’s level of radiation exposure.
The principal investigator for the contract, Carl Yamashiro of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, said that the research conducted under the five-year program should yield applications that extend beyond biodefense.
“The beauty of this system is its versatility,” Dr. Yamashiro said. “Not only will we be developing a system for the effective response to a nuclear or radiologic event that could affect a large population, but the high-throughout platform can also be used to advance genomics testing and other routine laboratory procedures measuring gene expression levels.”
Among the partners on the contract are several Arizona firms and institutions: Tucson-based High Throughput Genomics Inc., the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Scottsdale Healthcare Research Institute, and the University of Arizona. Joining the Arizona team members are Columbia University, Tecan Group Ltd., and the University of Illinois, Chicago.
“We have assembled a dream team of institutions and companies to catalyze our team’s research and discovery efforts, and translate the advances into a field-deployable technology,” Dr. Yamashiro said.
The team is designing what it calls a Biodosimetry Assay System, which would measure the amount of ionizing radiation an individual has absorbed. To do so, the system would analyze a blood sample, examining gene-expression markers that indicate radiation absorption.
No device or system currently exists that can quickly assess radiation exposure in a large population. The ASU-led team intends to deliver a system that can assess 2,000 individuals in an eight-hour span.
“As compared to current methodologies that are out there, this is orders of magnitude faster than these other methods that have been used,” Dr. Yamashiro said in the State Press.
The various partners working on the program will develop everything from cartridges for first responders to use for collecting blood samples, to a high-throughput assay system, to software for data collection and interpretation. Once the prototypes demonstrate success, the team will pursue authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to deploy the system for use in emergencies.
The successful pursuit of the BARDA contract follows on a previous, $25 million award to ASU, Columbia, and TGen, which in 2005 established the Center for High-Throughput Minimally-Invasive Radiation Biodosimetry at Columbia, one of eight Centers for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation (CMCR) funded by the National Institutes of Health. The CMCRs conducted foundational research to determine the feasibility of such technologies as those that the new BARDA contract is developing.
“If there was a radiological event, the object of the terrorist essentially is to spread panic and chaos,” said David Brenner of Columbia, principal investigator on the CMCR contract and a researcher on the new contract, in the State Press. “If you could reassure people by giving them a very swift test … in a sense you’re defeating the bad guys.”
For more information:
“ASU technology would allow scientists to measure radiation poisoning on mass scale,” State Press, 01/27/2010
“ASU team gets grant for nuclear detection,” Arizona Republic, 12/22/2009
“ASU leads $40 million effort to rapidly assess radiation exposures,” ASU news release, 12/21/2009