The New Defenders

An explosion of federal funding has Bay Area researchers at the forefront of America's counter-terrorism program. Will the money make us safer - or just make science a military secret?

The challenge in creating such a nuclear scanner is not just scientific, but also technological. Much like the handheld DNA analyzer, a nuclear scanner needs to come in a form that can be used by nontechnical workers in the field, and that is rugged enough to work even if it is dropped repeatedly. Making state-of-the-art science that sturdy and user-friendly takes money and time for field testing.

The first such device could be available within months, Barletta says, assuming that the government decides how this sort of high-priority technology is going to be transferred to the private sector. It's the kind of decision that will have to be made, repeatedly, by the people involved in the science of counterterrorism.

Ordinarily, bringing new drugs to market is a process that hopes to balance safety with need. But counter-bioterror drugs are anything but ordinary.

Consider, for instance, the case of Marks' future botulism drug. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve, for any purpose, a mixture of recombinant antibodies created by mixing DNA in the laboratory. Of course, the FDA generally ensures that drugs are safe through a lengthy process of clinical trials. But you can't have clinical trials on a drug for botulism without using the drug on people infected with botulism. And no one is advocating a call for volunteer botulism victims. (The FDA is working with the National Institutes of Health on new regulations for approving drugs related to bioterrorism.)

Even when regulatory approval has been granted, there's the thorny matter of licensing and production of counterterror drugs. Typically, pharmaceutical giants buy the rights to turn something new from the academic bench into a manufactured product for sale. But, as bio-scientists point out, a pharmaceutical company might be unwilling to take on the cost and risk of producing a counterterror drug that would be profitable only in the event of a huge and successful terror attack. It is, for example, quite possible that any future drug for the prevention and cure of botulism, regardless of how effective, will never be used in the mass market, and never return a profit to its manufacturer.

Thus, government counterterror funding will likely focus on "dual use" products -- that is, products that have both anti-terror and more general uses.

For instance, Terry Hazen, co-director of the new Virtual Institute for Microbial Stress and Survival (VIMSS) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which will study biological threats, received a $36 million, five-year grant in July for a project that studies how bacteria and fungi interact with the environment. The idea: An organism could be manipulated to seek radionuclides and, through decomposition, turn them into something less hazardous. Hazen's work is intended for use at environmental cleanup sites. But if you can make a radionuclide-stabilizing bug, it's not a big step to program a "seek-and-destroy bug" to find and decompose other substances.

"If we understood all of the genetic machinery and proteins involved in how [a bacteria] detects and moves toward a substance, we could genetically engineer a bacteria that has the ability to degrade a substance and seek it out," Hazen explains.

It's a page right out of science fiction: Researchers are on their way to creating a bacteria that would look for, say, mustard gas, and then, through biological breakdown, change it into something innocuous.

Whatever the outcome of Congress' wrestling match over the new Homeland Security Department, the agency will almost certainly dispense huge amounts of research money, and a great deal of it is likely to be targeted at, and thus likely to reconfigure, the Bay Area's scientific research community. "We see the challenge of homeland security as potentially spawning a whole new industry, or at least a whole new field of activity," says Sean Randolph, president of the Bay Area Economic Forum. "A lot of money and research is going to have to be put into this."

A recent report from the group notes that the Bay Area generates more patents, and more patents per employee, than any comparable region in the nation. In fact, the argument could be made that a national security industry already exists here, only in disconnected parts: five national security laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, Sandia Livermore, NASA's Ames Research Center, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator); Stanford University and the University of California at San Francisco, both big dogs in the biological research field; the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek; and the University of California at Berkeley, home to the world's largest unclassified computer system. That's not to mention the area's status as the largest hub of private biotechnology and intelligence technology in the country.

The proposed Homeland Security Department calls for "Regional Centers of Excellence" that would gather scientists from various laboratories under one roof. The centers also are likely to house the sorts of highly specialized facilities that are needed for work on particularly dangerous pathogens like the Ebola virus, which is, in a high percentage of cases, fatal and has no known cure. Conventional wisdom is that at least a regional center, if not something bigger, will be located in the Bay Area. In that scenario, of course, private researchers and university scientists would likely wind up working side by side, under the aegis of the federal government.

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