Researchers have completed genome sequences for numerous infectious agents, including the bacteria that cause malaria, stomach ulcers and food poisoning, as well as organisms responsible for hospital-acquired infections, cholera, pneumonia and chlamydia, and for potential biowarfare agents, such as the organism responsible for bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis).
Under battlefield conditions, soldiers are vulnerable to naturally occurring infections such as influenza. The biotechnology industry is addressing such illnesses with vaccines (including some under development that could be taken orally), antivirals and antibiotics.
DETECTION AND DIAGNOSIS
As we saw in the anthrax scare of 2001, we need to be able to rapidly determine whether a person has been exposed to an infectious agent, and we also need capabilities for detecting these agents in the environment. Some devices have been developed already for these purposes, and others are in the pipeline.
Example: Portable detectors. DARPA provided funding for a portable detection device that can analyze DNA from a sample to detect the presence of a preselected infectious agent in 30 minutes. Such devices speed diagnosis and allow it to be performed anywhere, without the need to ship samples to labs.
Portable biosensors have been developed to detect the exact DNA sequences of pathogens in the atmosphere. Such rapid-detection systems provide the precious time necessary for evacuation, vaccination or other prophylactic measures necessary to save lives.
Specialized industrial enzymes can be sprayed over contaminated areas, rendering infectious agents harmless.
These strategies center on the creation of molecular barriers to infection. One company, for example, is developing molecules that adhere to entry sites on mucosal membranes to prevent the absorption of viruses and bacteria into the bloodstream.
Nonbiological attacks and emergencies
Although the spotlight is on bioterrorism, the biotechnology industry is developing products that may have utility in treating injuries and illness resulting from conventional attacks as well. Artificial skin products, for example, were deployed to treat burn victims of the September 11 attacks. Other biotechnology products with potential applications in an emergency include blood products (such as blood replacement and purification products now in development) and surgical products.