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June 2002

The Laboratory
in the News

Commentary by
Bert Weinstein

A Two-Pronged Attack on Bioterrorism

Adaptive Optics Sharpen the View from Earth

Re-Create X Rays from Comets

50 Years of Exploring the Material World




Bert Weinstein
Acting Associate Director of Biology and Biotechnology Research Programs

Fighting Bioterrorism, Fighting Cancer

THE anthrax attack last fall spotlighted the need for fast, accurate, inexpensive methods to detect weapons of bioterrorism. Fortunately, long before this attack, Livermore was a leader in developing innovative methods and technologies for early detection of bioterrorism threats. Since the attack, the Laboratory has intensified its efforts in this area vital to national security. This month’s issue of S&TR features Livermore’s leading-edge biotechnology research with immediate applications for detecting the agents of bioterrorism and long-term possibilities for fighting disease, especially cancer.
Pathogens can be detected in two basic ways: look for their DNA, the genetic blueprint for the organism, or look for the protein building blocks that are generated from this genetic blueprint and make up the structure and machinery of the organism.
Lawrence Livermore is well known for its DNA detection capabilities. For the past decade, we have been developing both the technologies and science for fast, accurate detection and characterization of bioterrorism pathogens from their DNA. We have licensed a series of technologies to industry, most recently the Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer. Our DNA analysis capabilities were deployed at the 2002 Winter Olympics as the analysis core of the Bological Aerosol Sentry and Information System used for air-monitoring.
These DNA detection methods are highly sensitive and specific but require skilled personnel and sophisticated equipment to deploy them. As the article entitled A Two-Pronged Attack on Bioterrorism reports, Livermore is also developing protein detection methods to identify pathogens. As with most protein recognition methods—home pregnancy tests, for example—our methods will be fast and easy to use. But they must also be more sensitive and specific than home pregnancy tests—more like DNA detection systems. Livermore’s technique uses carefully designed antibodylike molecules, called high-affinity ligands, to identify pathogens. Our approach seeks to combine the best of both worlds—fast and easy to use as well as highly sensitive and specific.
In addition to applications in countering bioterrorism, this tool will also find widespread applications in the field of public health. Livermore researchers have already begun to develop a high-affinity ligand that will search out non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. Cancer cells produce specific protein building blocks that properly designed high-affinity ligands can target. Arming the ligands with radionuclides to kill the cancer cells may result in an effective cancer treatment with minimal side effects.
Designing these high-affinity ligands draws on a spectrum of Livermore capabilities—bioscience research, high-performance computational modeling, synthesis of new molecules, and an array of molecular diagnostics such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and mass spectroscopy. The ability to bring together these capabilities allows us to make advances that would be difficult or impossible anywhere other than at a national laboratory.
This high-affinity ligand technology has many other potential applications. At some time in the not-too-distant future, doctors, other public health workers, and food safety experts could use the same methodology to quickly detect proteins from pathogens such as streptococcus, salmonella, flu, foot and mouth disease, and E. coli. With faster detection will come more timely, effective intervention and treatment. The next generation of pathogen detectors—for fighting bioterrorism specifically and disease in general—will likely combine DNA and protein recognition for even greater speed and accuracy.
As part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Chemical and Biological National Security Program, Livermore has for a decade been at the forefront of research to counter the effects of deadly weapons of biological terrorism. We are finding that almost every step forward in this research produces know-how that can benefit the everyday health of the general public. The specter of bioterrorism is frightening, and the world is never likely to be free of disease. Fortunately, we are finding better ways to fight both, and they often go hand in hand.


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UCRL-52000-02-5 | June 14, 2002