LLNL researcher awarded $2.4 million from NIH for bio weapon mitigation

August 22nd, 2011
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher Pejman Naraghi-Arani has been awarded $2.4 million by the National Institutes of Health under the Partnerships for Biodefense Program, which aims to develop various tools that can be applied to detect, mitigate the effects of or protect against an attack by a biological weapon.

Naraghi-Arani and partners, including the University of Texas Medical Branch, the University of California San Francisco and NanoString Technologies Corp., will use the funding to develop assays capable of detecting 35 category A, B and C viral pathogens, which include Ebola, Marburg, Dengue, Chikungunya and others.

Most diseases on this list present initial symptoms similar to a cold or flu – headaches, nausea and fever. Without the ability to detect the presence of specific viruses, there is no way to tell the difference between a normal infection and a deadly disease, reducing the treatment time window and thus, the ability to mitigate the virus' spread. However, by developing an assay that leverages the NanoString's nCounter platform, these viruses can be quickly detected, in addition to specific cytokine and chemokine markers of infection.

Naraghi-Arani, a biomedical scientist and thrust area leader for molecular assays and virology, believes that his process will address one of the biggest problems anticipated in a real biological attack.

"This product will help prevent one of the main things a terrorist group would want, which is to overwhelm emergency response," he said. "It will be very similar to the response we saw in the anthrax attacks; however, it won't just be concerned people calling a center. It will be worried people flooding hospitals, and this way we can process them much faster."

In the event of a biological attack, hospitals will see three types of patients: those infected with the disease, those with a different disease with similar symptoms (cold, flu) and those that are simply concerned. Instead of overwhelming the emergency room and creating both pandemonium and the perfect environment to spread disease, patients will give a tiny amount of blood – 100 microliters – at a station outside the facility and go home to await their results.

The platform has the ability to test upward of 100 samples per day with only five minutes of patient contact each and return results within 24 hours – not only if the patient has elevated cytokine and chemokine markers, but if they are infected with any one of the 35 viruses. At that point, the patients will know if they need to come back in, well within the timeframe for treatment before symptoms advance.

"One of the main reasons this system is important is that it enables us to make real diagnosis of diseases as opposed to looking at very general kinds of symptoms and guessing," Naraghi-Arani said. "This kind of research also helps us to identify specific biomarkers associated with these very dangerous pathogens and allows us to develop even better tools for mitigation, such as novel antivirals."

At the end of the project in 2014, the partners will have a real, commercial product on hand, ready to deploy in the event of an attack. According to Naraghi-Arani, the need is present even in the absence of bioterrorism. Many of these diseases are on the move from their traditional endemic locations, he said, and could easily find a home in this country.

"There are definite real-world applications right now in the United States with emerging diseases that we know could be an issue. It would be great to have these tools available, even without the presence of a biological attack, because we need to be able to respond quickly," he said. "This is an example of how partnerships between the government, national laboratories, universities and corporations help to solve some of our bigger problems."

Provided by DOE/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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