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Toxic threatsIdentifying toxic threats, preparing for surprise

Published 11 August 2017

Predicting chemical attacks is no small task, especially when there are so many toxic substances. There is no crystal ball to aid us in sorting through them all to identify and characterize the potential threats. Instead, intelligence and defense communities use a broad network of tools to forecast hazards to safeguard our warfighters and nation. A new project from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) seeks to improve the U.S. defensive capability by creating a crystal ball to more rapidly determine the toxicity of such chemical hazards and increase our ability to prepare for surprise.

Predicting chemical attacks is no small task, especially when there are so many toxic substances. There is no crystal ball to aid us in sorting through them all to identify and characterize the potential threats.

Instead, intelligence and defense communities use a broad network of tools to forecast hazards to safeguard our warfighters and nation. A new project from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) seeks to improve the U.S. defensive capability by creating a crystal ball to more rapidly determine the toxicity of such chemical hazards and increase our ability to prepare for surprise.

DVIDS says that DTRA’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department is spearheading the new Computational Rapid Identification and Scientific Threat Analysis (CRISTAL) initiative. CRISTAL aims to provide a predictive tool that rapidly characterizes the toxic nature of previously uncharacterized chemicals that may pose a toxic, life endangering threat to our nation’s warfighters.

Traditional threat agent analysis is expensive, time consuming and requires significant animal testing. Currently, estimating the human toxicity of a potential chemical threat costs the DoD between $5-30 million and between one to five years of research.

CRISTAL’s objective is to provide vital data to the warfighter and defense community by combining state-of-the-art in vitro assays and software to analyze chemical and toxicity properties in significantly less time.

In conjunction with DTRA, the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center and four minority-serving institutions are leading the CRISTAL effort. Researchers from ECBC, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, City College of New York, Albany State University and Fisk University are exploring computational and in vitro methods for characterizing the toxicity of organophosphate (OP) compounds.

OPs are commercially available and include insecticides, ophthalmic agents, herbicides, and anthelminthics. In addition, this group includes some of the most toxic chemical agents, such as the nerve agents sarin, soman and VX.

Researchers are developing computational models to predict the reactivity and enzyme kinetics of OPs as well as in vitro assays including 2-D and 3-D organ-in-a-dish/organ-on-a-chip platforms for and in vivo, non-mammalian testing systems to more rapidly measure toxicity at both the cellular and molecular levels.

DVIDS says that CRISTAL will provide a more rapid determination of a chemical’s threat potential and thus enable timely development of future detection, protection and therapeutic tools, supporting the DoD’s Better Buying Power initiative, increasing warfighter safety and mission success. “If successful, these efforts may save the DoD millions and years of characterization time per hazard. Today’s investments in these critical enablers will ensure combat effectiveness in the future,” DTRA says.