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NJ Med School Gets Army Contract to Define Molecular Signatures of Biological Warfare Agents

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As concerns mount about preparedness for bioterrorism in the US, one microarray lab has already begun applying biochip technology to develop gene-based detection platforms for exposure to biological warfare agents.

The Center for Applied Genomics at the Public Health Research Institute in Newark, NJ, working jointly with the New Jersey Medical School Center for Emerging and Reemerging Pathogens, has obtained a contract with the US Army, funding a project beginning in October to develop microarray-based molecular diagnostics for biological agents.

“We’re basically initiating a study to see whether we can come up with molecular signatures of host responses that are very specific for individual agents that a bioterrorist may use,” said Peter Tolias, director of the Center for Applied Genomics. “Our hypothesis is that there probably are signature gene expression responses.”

Initially, Tolias and his group will do gene expression profiling in human high-density arrays, and then once they isolate specific signatures, will aim to design low-density arrays with the key genes involved in signature responses to particular agents.

The researchers are looking at a list of agents provided by the US Department of Defense. “They are first-, second-, and third-tier agents they have identified that can be used by bioterrorists,” Tolias said.

These agents most likely include common threats such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague, smallpox, and tularemia, which have been identified by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies as the most widely known and suspected to be used. But they could also include other agents known to the Army.

Given that Tolias and others will be working with these agents, and that the entire US is on a state of increased alert, security has been increased at this facility. He recommends that any university with a Biosafety Level 3 facility do the same thing. “Just as [terrorists] can ram a jet into a skyscraper, it doesn’t take much to ram into a university facility,” he said.

— MMJ