Media keeps its spotlight on Lab

Nov. 2, 2001

Media keeps its spotlight on Lab





Since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio have been filled with stories about the events and their aftermath, including the anthrax mailings.

Many of those stories have focused on what the government is doing to combat terrorism. And many of the reporters writing those stories have turned to the Laboratory for information.

“It’s been a whirlwind of television cameras, radio sessions and newspaper interviews, but this research is more vital than ever and it’s important that we share what we can with the public,” said Page Stoutland, who as deputy division leader for counterterrorism and incident response in NAI, has often been called upon to speak to reporters.

Biology & Biotechnology Program Acting Associate Director Bert Weinstein has also been the subject of numerous news media interviews, often providing reporters with primers on pathogen biology and detection, as well as overviews of the program’s DNA signature research.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, reporters were interested in nuclear security and the activities of LLNL’s Nuclear Emergency Search Team or NEST. Alan Mode, recently retired division leader for counterterrorism and incident response, was interviewed for CBS Evening News, Business Week, the San Francisco Chronicle and other local publications.

The Lab’s Public Affairs Office is still fielding dozens of calls daily from news media wanting to know what the Laboratory is doing to help in the new war on terrorism.
“We have good stories to tell,” said Susan Houghton, deputy director of Public Affairs. “Our work in the field of biodetectors, for example, is very impressive, and reporters are very interested in that.”

Thus far, almost 70 news stories mentioning Lab anti-terrorism work have been published or aired, with more slated to appear soon. Calls have come from news outlets ranging from national institutions such as ABC World News Tonight, CNN and The New York Times to regional and local news organizations from across the country.
“There have been so many requests for interviews that we’ve had to be somewhat selective in granting them,” said Houghton.

While much of the Lab’s work toward combating terrorism is classified or in early development stages, there are a number of research efforts that can be shared with reporters and the public.

One such project is HANAA, the Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer. Developed by the Nonproliferation, Arms Control and International Security (NAI) directorate and the Biology and Biotechnology Research Program, HANAA is a small (about the size of a brick), portable, battery-powered device that can be used in the field to detect the presence of pathogens such as anthrax or plague through the analysis of sample DNA. The process takes 30 minutes or less.
The Lab has been working with a commercial partner to produce prototype models of the machine. A license is expected to be granted shortly, after which full production of final models is anticipated.

The HANAA team is led by NAI’s Ronald Koopman.

Another device, the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS), also searches for the presence of pathogens in the environment. The APDS is designed to be installed inside buildings, subway systems or other public venues, where it can continuously monitor the air for the presence of pathogens. Should the device detect such a presence, it can alert emergency response agencies.

The APDS is under development by BBRP’s Richard Langlois and his team, which hopes to identify a commercial partner in the next year.

A number of people have worked on the HANAA and APDS systems. They include Steve Brown, Bill Colston, Les Jones, Don Masquelier, Mary McBride, Shanavaz Nasarabadi, Kodumudi Venkateswaran, Fred Milanovich, Keith Burris, Paula McCready, William Benett, Jim Richards, Paul Stratton and Dean Hadley.

Also in the Biology and Biotechnology Research Program, Gary Andersen and colleagues Wendy Wilson, Todd Desantis, Peter Agron and Lyndsay Radnedge are working in two areas related to detection of biological agents. They are identifying the DNA signatures of a host of pathogens so the information can be used in devices such as HANAA, APDS or other detection systems. They are also working with Affymetrix to develop gene chips — similar to computer chips — that can store genetic information on unique diagnostic regions for various pathogen strains, allowing for high-throughput, high-confidence analysis of unknown agents.

Using similar techniques, researchers hope to be able to distinguish one strain of a pathogen from another. This level of detection specificity would aid in the study of naturally occurring outbreaks and help distinguish rare but natural occurrences from potentially suspicious outbreaks. Andersen’s team is also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control to identify food pathogens and to track the source of an infection based on pathogen strain identification.

The Lab is in partnership with Los Alamos National Laboratory on the Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System (BASIS), a field laboratory linked to a network of monitors that work together to “sniff” the air over a given geographical area for the presence of biological agents. Unlike the APDS, the BASIS samples are brought to a central BASIS lab, where samples are analyzed for the presence of pathogens.

BASIS was demonstrated in Salt Lake City last March. It is currently configured for limited duration operations such as special events, and in the future will be modified for long-term operations.

Once pathogens such as anthrax or plague are discovered, what do you do with them? You might clean them up with L-Gel, a Lab-developed, silica-based oxidizer material that can be sprayed onto any surface to kill biological agents or to neutralize chemical warfare agents. Developed by researchers from the Environmental Protection Department and the Chemistry and Materials Science directorate, L-Gel works in less than an hour and, because it is environmentally benign, can be vacuumed away or simply left in place for outdoor decontamination.

The Lab has identified potential industrial partners to commercialize the gel and is working quickly to develop a licensing agreement to meet increasing demand for the material.

The L-Gel team, led by EPD’s Department Head Ellen Raber, includes C&MS’s Mark Hoffman and EPD’s Paula Krauter and Tina Carlsen.

With airport security even more of a concern following the terrorist attacks, technology to improve screening of passengers and their baggage or cargo has gained renewed interest. Harry Martz, director of Engineering’s Center for Nondestructive Characterization, sits on a National Academy of Sciences committee that reviews Federal Aviation Administration airport safety regulations. Martz, with expertise in new X-ray and industrial CT scanning technologies, and research projects under way in ultrasonic and thermal technologies, has been called upon by the news media to discuss existing and potential scanning technologies.

Martz will take part in an FAA conference later this month that will review available and emerging scanning technologies in the wake of Sept.11.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as well as the recent anthrax incidents have put NAI’s nonproliferation and counterterrorism activities in the media spotlight.

“We have been working on counterterrorism as part of our nonproliferation mission for many years,” said Wayne Shotts, NAI associate director. “The events of September 11 have lent new urgency to our efforts to develop the Lab’s unique capabilities for countering terrorism. The Lab brings a great deal of expertise and experience to the nation’s effort to defend the country against biological, chemical or nuclear terrorism threats.”