Local entities net nearly $9 million in a multi-institutional effort to develop responses to "dirty bombs" and other threats

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and the Translational Genomics Institute (TGen) have been awarded key roles in an effort to provide protection in the event of a radiological terrorist attack.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the establishment of a network of multi-institution centers for countermeasures to "dirty bombs" or other attacks involving radioactive materials. As collaborators in the project, the Biodesign Institute will garner $5.9 million and TGen will receive $3 million, for a total of nearly $9 million in funding over the next five years.

The grant represents the first-ever federal award to include a university-led product development core to measure radiation exposure, also known as biodosimetry. Frederic Zenhausern, director of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Applied NanoBioscience, will lead a team of experts to coordinate all aspects of product development projects and core technologies.

"Monitoring the biological response of civilian and military populations when exposed to low dose radiation of a dirty bomb or other environmental radioactive threat could significantly improve risk management," said Zenhausern, who is also a professor in ASU's Fulton School of Engineering.

At TGen, Jeffrey Trent and Michael Bittner, who jointly worked on "biosignatures" of radiation response while at the National Institutes of Health, will lead a team that will provide informatics and biostatistical support.

"TGen's focus on mathematical tools, combined with ASU's sophisticated biocomputing platforms are a key component to the consortium's goal of developing diagnostic tests following a potentially catastrophic radiological incident," said Trent. "The ability to rapidly analyze an individual's genetic signature of radiation exposure levels could be remarkably important in triaging patients."

Columbia University will serve as the lead institution for the award, which will establish a Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation (CMCR). The center will be comprised of several institutions and a multidisciplinary consortium of radiation biologists and physicists, mechanical and software engineers, product development experts, and commercial companies in the field.

In addition to Columbia, the Biodesign Institute and TGen, other institutions involved in the research consortium include: Harvard University School of Public Health; the National Cancer Institute; Sionex Inc.; and the City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

If there were a large-scale radiological incident in a U.S. city, tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of individuals would need to be immediately screened for radiation exposure. Those with high levels of radiation would need to be quickly triaged into treatment.

Unfortunately, there is currently no rapid post-exposure method available to measure the radiation dose received by individuals in the event of a large-scale scenario. Current technologies can assess only a few hundred individuals per day. A second critical shortcoming in existing capabilities is that few medical products exist to counter the variety of acute and long-term injuries that can result from nuclear or radiological attacks.

The formation of the CMCR is an effort to address these current weaknesses. It reflects the growing concern of such attacks with the increased activity of global terrorist organizations and a rise in illicit trafficking of radioactive materials.

"The threat of radiological terror is very real," said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute who also chairs the Department of Defense's task force on bioterrorism. "Most scenarios will present major organizational challenges to government, medical facilities and emergency first responders in the event of a catastrophe."

Potential radiation exposure scenarios may include the detonation of nuclear weapons, terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors, or the dispersal of radioactive substances with the use of conventional explosives, i.e. "dirty bombs," that could result in mass casualties.

Zenhausern's team, which includes Carl Yamashiro and Ralf Lenigk, will work on devices that can rapidly distinguish individuals who need therapy from those who do not, and that can measure internal and external exposure not just after exposure, but during treatment and recovery stages. This will involve development of minimally invasive biodosimetry devices and techniques, biomarker assays, and other automated biology-based, high-throughput diagnostic systems.

"The goal of our approach is to develop a tiny, miniaturized cartridge to provide rapid, frequent testing that is also sensitive enough to assess the biological impact of radiation for a set of specific genes that indicate radiation exposure," said Zenhausern. The work will include designing an integrated self-containing blood sample preparation and gene expression profiling device and that will be portable and suitable for mass production.

TGen researchers will be working with long time radiation biology collaborators at Harvard and Columbia to specify sets of genes that have both immediate and long-lasting responses to radiation in circulating blood cells.

"By studying the gene expression response of blood cells to radiation in a variety of therapeutic exposures that patients experience during medical imaging, radiation therapy, and to more extreme radiation," said TGen's Bittner, "it is possible to develop a panel of tests, which can be carried out on a blood sample that will indicate the extent of radiation exposure a person received during a radiation release." This will allow rapid determination of the appropriate types of treatment for those at risk for exposure.

Additional components coordinated by others in the consortium include several methodologies and devices to accurately and rapidly detect radiation from whole body exposure to minute changes in cells, including robotic methods to measure damage to DNA and cells, biochips to monitor gene expression levels, and signature identification of metabolites found in sweat and urine.


The Biodesign Institute at ASU integrates research in diverse disciplines including biology, engineering, medicine, physics, information technology and cognitive science to accelerate discoveries into beneficial uses.

About TGen
TGen is a not-for-profit organization whose primary mission is to make and translate genomic discoveries into advances in human health. Translational genomics research is a relatively new field employing innovative advances arising from the Human Genome Project to apply to the development of diagnostics, prognostics and therapies for cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes and other complex diseases.

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