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Top Secret: Tools of the Trade Win Award

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Akbar Khan had to overcome a few security hurdles to get the word out, but after three months of putting off press, here’s what he wants anyone who has submitted data to GenBank to know: Your work is helping protect you and your family “and this wonderful nation.”

Khan and his molecular engineering team, Jennifer Bucher and Cheng Cao, at the US Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command in Edgewood, Md., won an Army science award in December for their work developing biological agent detection tools.

Khan says they relied on GenBank data to design and develop fluorogenic Taqman PCR assays capable of detecting and identifying biowarfare agents. The team created assays for 25 toxins and pathogens. As the work is “classified,” Khan won’t name specific bugs, but says “the gruesome ones” are covered.

He won’t name his customers, either, other than to say that most of them are “three-letter intelligence agencies.” The agencies began funding Khan’s work “for a couple of million dollars” in 1999, but refined their targets of interest and added new ones after Sept. 11, 2001. And Khan says that’s not all that changed after 9/11: security procedures slowed the pace of his work dramatically. Now, he says, “you have to get signed papers and declare with the biosafety office so they can keep track of everything.” Due to such red tape, one project that was due for completion last September will likely be finished seven months behind schedule, he says.

Khan feels indebted to the GenBank community in more ways than one. He got his start in Bruce Roe’s Oklahoma genome sequencing lab, and worked with Craig Venter at NIH and TIGR before being drafted into the Army research community in 1998. Khan says he’d like those people to know how important the public access to their data has been to his work. But, of course, just as easily as Khan’s group manipulated public data to design unique assays, so could a “bad guy clone a region of bad DNA and generate a manmade pathogen or virus,” he notes. “That’s the biggest scare and that’s why we designed these things.”

— Adrienne Burke

 

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