In the wake of the recent rash of deliveries of anthrax by mail in the US, DNA tests for pathogens used as biological weapons have come to be seen as the answer to the public’s need for quick, reliable systems for detecting anthrax and other pathogens such as tularemia and smallpox.
Developers of proteomics technologies, however, are also hoping to contribute to global anti-terrorism efforts. Mass spectrometry systems designed for identifying specific proteins have the potential to act as portable monitoring devices, and custom-designed protein or antibody microarrays could serve as diagnostic tools to identify infected patients. Additionally, heightened concerns about bioterrorism will likely trigger a growth in funding for protein-identification systems, government and industry scientists said last week.
Most recently, US Food and Drug Administration scientists based in Rockville, Md., have formed a working group to study how proteomics technologies developed at the FDA for analyzing drug efficacy could be used to combat bioterrorism, said Emanuel Petricoin, a co-director of the clinical proteomics program jointly run by the FDA and the National Cancer Institute, in Bethesda, Md.
The FDA/NCI program has developed both protein and antibody microarrays that are currently used in studies to identify protein markers for cancer, and to monitor drug effects by correlating drug efficacy with specific cellular protein profiles. But Petricoin said the chip platform, developed by Ciphergen Biosystems in Fremont, Calif., could easily be extended to other disease conditions.
The most well-known DNA-based test for anthrax, developed by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Cepheid, tests for specific DNA sequences unique to the pathogen. Similarly, the microarrays developed by the FDA/NCI proteomics program can analyze the protein profile in a patient’s serum to detect whether a patient has been infected with a pathogen. But proteomics-based technology could be even more effective than DNA-based techniques, Petricoin said.
“Instead of having to lyse DNA you can very easily detect bacterial surface antigens right away,” Petricoin said. “It may sound futuristic, but a lot of this is already in place, and it emanated from proteomics technologies.”
In addition, part of the FDA/NCI proteomics platform includes bioreactors that grow tissue from autopsy patients, Petricoin said. Scientists could use these bioreactors to expose tissue samples to biological warfare agents, and monitor changes in the cells’ protein profiles using a chip-based affinity agent and mass spectrometry.
“We have the tools in place for looking at real human tissue response, just like [we’ve been] looking at tissue before and after administering a drug,” he said. “Proteomics will play a key role [in the public health response to bioterrorism].”
In other applications of proteomics technology, scientists have worked for years to develop biosensors — much like smoke detectors — that could pick out a protein profile specific to an airborne or waterborne pathogen.
One such portable mass spectrometer is under development at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md., in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The device, affectionately called a “tiny TOF,” is a time-of-flight mass spectrometer about the size of a shoebox that can detect chemical and biological warfare agents in solids, liquids, or vapor. Because of heightened security, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which sponsors the research, would not allow researchers to speak with reporters.
Most recently, Bruker Daltonics announced last month that it had won a $10 million contract from the Department of Defense to provide 49 ion trap mass spectrometers for use in the Army’s Biological Integrated Detection System. Each Chemical Biological Mass Spectrometer (CBMS) system, with a list price of $250,000, can analyze both chemical and biological substances, and contains air sampling devices, substance concentrator and dissociation modules, as well as an ion trap mass spectrometer, the company said. In a statement published in Commerce Business Daily, a US government publication, the Army said it chose Bruker Daltonics because it “is the only source that can produce and deliver these CBMSs and related items without substantial duplication of costs to the Government and without unacceptable delays.”
Although Bruker Daltonics won the contract before Sept. 11, Congress recently appropriated $40 billion for antiterrorism efforts, and part of that money will undoubtedly go toward funding research into anti-terrorism technology.
“There’s more funding now than ever,” said Petricoin. — JSM