Inventors Dash to Unpack WMD Threats at Cellular Level

Police officers put on hazardous-materials suits to train for biological or chemical attacks in 2005. Scientists are racing to develop new procedures capable of quickly determining how chemicals and microbes attack humans at the cellular level.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
June 17, 2014, 9:04 a.m.

Sci­ent­ists are wa­ging an un­der-the-mi­cro­scope battle to de­term­ine how weapon­ized chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al agents be­have in­side cells to kill their vic­tims.

Teams of spe­cial­ists are roughly six months in­to a five-year dash for tech­no­lo­gies cap­able of de­term­in­ing how a bio­lo­gic­al or chem­ic­al in­vader acts on a mo­lecu­lar level to as­sault the hu­man body, the pro­ject’s top De­fense De­part­ment over­seer told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. The ini­ti­at­ive — dubbed “Rap­id Threat As­sess­ment” — would ideally yield tech­niques cap­able of provid­ing a full readout of an un­con­ven­tion­al weapon ma­ter­i­al with­in 30 days, al­low­ing for fast pre­par­a­tion of new med­ic­al treat­ments.

“It’s a little early to make any pre­dic­tions of fu­ture suc­cess,” said Barry Pal­lotta, who is head­ing the pro­ject for the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency.

Pro­ject par­ti­cipants are act­ing on their own timelines to pur­sue vari­ous vis­ions for ana­lyt­ic­al sys­tems cap­able of de­term­in­ing ex­actly when, where and how for­eign in­vaders acts in­side of hu­man cells, Pal­lotta wrote in an e-mailed re­sponse to ques­tions.

He said the goal is to de­vel­op meth­ods of re­veal­ing the mo­lecu­lar blow-by-blow of an un­con­ven­tion­al weapon’s course of at­tack “with 95 per­cent ac­cur­acy.”

“Each pro­ject team … is cur­rently fo­cused on meet­ing the mile­stones that come due at the end of the base peri­od about a year from now,” Pal­lotta wrote.

His agency said in­vent­ors would then face a test where they will have 30 days “to de­tect, identi­fy, re­con­struct, and con­firm the mech­an­ism of a demon­stra­tion com­pound.”

Pro­pos­als deemed to show enough prom­ise could see their fund­ing re­newed for up to three ad­di­tion­al 14-month cycles, ac­cord­ing to a DARPA broad agency an­nounce­ment from last year.

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