Fighting the bioterror of the future

Published 10 February 2006

Not only generals fight the last war, so do biologists; so a Stanford biologist suggests a refocusing of the U.S. bioterror effort toward a more open-ended approach

Nearly $1.5 billion was allocated for biodefense research to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2003, but some say that too much of the money and attention is being paid to pathogens that presently cause disease. Among them is Stanford microbiology and immunology professor David Relman who recently published an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine> on the threat of bioterrorism. Relman, who is a member of the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, calls for a shift from research designed to counter specific threats to more generic forms of defense. “The key challenge will be to define the optimal balance between fixed and flexible defenses,” he explains. Relman agrees with the practicality of fighting against known agents of bioterrorism, but he says that the government should invest even more in flexible, dynamic security measures. “A robust biodefense plan must be anticipatory, flexible and rapidly responsive,” Relman says. “It should exploit cross-cutting technologies and cross-disciplinary scientific insights.”

Relman uses a combination of new techniques and genomics in his research to do just that. He seeks to develop approaches for recognizing infectious diseases from the start by looking at strategies to create profiles of human gene expression or human protein expression based upon a genome-wide survey of host responses. He is using genomics to find patterns, which he in turn uses for diagnoses. “When we cannot recognize specific microbial agents of disease in their early point, we are limited in the kinds of interventions we can offer patients — sometimes limited to nonspecific antibiotics,” Relman says.

Relman says that all he is doing is urging us to be “prepared to fight the next war” on bioterrorism rather than focusing attention on the past, Relman argues. The reason: “What I worry about in the most distant term is that, in addition to everything nature will spawn, we could also face someone or somebody deliberately or inadvertently misusing biology.”

-read more in this Stanford Daily report

MORE: We reported a couple of days ago HSDW2/6/06] on a University of Wisconsin professor who received funding to develop a mathematical model predicting terrorist attacks. Mathematicians at Stanford are working in a similar vein. Jonathan Farley, science fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), is trying to find statistical methods to predict imminent threats. “Using ‘lattice theory,’ I am trying to determine the structure of the perfect terrorist cell’,” Farley explains. “In the future, I hope to model the growth of terrorist groups, to model the evolutionary dynamics of the Al Qaeda virus,’ as it were.” Research on ways to apply math to predict real threats has been going on for a while, including work in reflexive theory — a branch of mathematical psychology created to help law enforcement allocate its scarce resources. Fred Roberts, director of the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, uses “free distributive lattices” to lower the cost of inspecting potentially dangerous cargo at ports. Farley admits, however, that biodefense can often be a game of hit or miss. “According to Gordon Woo, a mathematician who spoke at CISAC last week, the greatest terrorist biological weapon is the brain,” recalls Farley. Farley’s solution: “The U.S. should increase funding for weapons of math instruction by a factor of 3.1415.” Report