Shortly after news of the Anthrax letters became public, graduate student Joshua Santarpia, who was studying atmospheric aerosols at Texas A&M, began to wonder how he could apply his work to the problems of biological defense. He thought of technologies that could use light to discriminate biological threats from innocuous particles.
In 2005, Dr. Santarpia took his first job at the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center and began testing biodetection devices for the Department of Homeland Security. At the time, the biodetection and identification systems might be the size of a refrigerator and no one understood their performance in an operational environment.
Today, Dr. Santarpia is a pathology and microbiology associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and NSRI’s research director of CWMD programs. He is working with colleagues to develop a technology that will weigh less than five pounds, fit on a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and perform the same functions as the refrigerator-sized systems of 15 years ago. He is also working on new technology, in collaboration with a colleague at Army Research Labs, that uses a novel light scattering technique to detect biological aerosols in the atmosphere.
Biological weapons are difficult to detect, but surveillance to identify attacks early is the best way to mitigate them.
Addressing Unseen WMD Threats with Real-World Solutions
In part due to advances in science and technology, such as UAV capabilities, throughout the past few decades there has been increased attention on chemical and biological terrorism and a growing concern that foreign states could use these WMD — or already are using them. The fast spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus underscored the potential devastation that could result if someone did decide to use such a weapon.
However, the same technology that has advanced potential threats also increases defenders’ ability to fight them. For these and other reasons, interdicting, detecting and mitigating biological and chemical WMD is and has been a priority for NSRI and its defense customers.
Biological WMD solutions: NSRI has collaborated for many years with NU researchers and endusers to develop and implement new technology to support virtually every aspect of biological defense and biosurveillance, especially regarding organisms dispersed in aerosols. Individual efforts support a range of aerobiology and environmental microbiology research.
Chemical WMD solutions: NSRI researchers have been working to address chemical threats for defense agencies including supporting chemical detector programs and hosting tabletop exercises and technology reviews.
Anticipating and Responding to Evolving Threats
Built on a foundation of decades of University of Nebraska research capabilities, NSRI projects in the past two years have helped develop WMD countermeasures in multiple domains. Projects ranged from concept and development to testing and prototyping. Much of the work during these two years was focused heavily on detection using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) like the one being developed by Dr. Santarpia’s team.
When the coronavirus appeared at the end of this period, NSRI and NU researchers were ready to step in with technology and skills already in play — and they expect to be working on virus-related challenges for some time.
In April 2020, NSRI formalized the process of developing chemical WMD solutions with a new chemical defense directorate. In the few months since opening, the new directorate has engaged in projects with NU research experts, top government stakeholders, other UARCs and private industry. The initial focus has been on direct support for operational use, including providing subject matter expertise, field testing, and training law enforcement.
The NSRI Chemical Defense Directorate, since its launch in April of 2020, has been led by Dr. Thomas Mueller. He offers a decade of seniorlevel experience in chemical research and development from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and Battelle Memorial Institute. He has been with NSRI since 2018. Dr. Mueller will continue to grow NSRI’s capabilities across the chemical threat spectrum to become a go-to resource for government, military and private mission partners. Read more about Dr. Santarpia and Dr. Mueller at nsri.nebraska.edu/experts.
Much of NSRI’s work in all of these domains is steeped in the science behind solutions, because the tasks are taken on by NU researchers who have devoted their lives to scientific study. However, lessons learned and skills obtained through science offer a secondary value as a support for operational and intelligence tasks within military and government defense-focused departments. In addition, NSRI researchers have worked with the institute’s field operations and training team to prepare law enforcement departments, military missions and civil support teams to identify and successfully respond to incidents.
NSRI is committed to keeping the pipeline of scientific researchers filled to provide a future workforce in these areas. A great deal of the institute’s support goes to providing student opportunities. From building prototypes to manufacturing biomedical devices, mechanical engineering undergrad and graduate students directly supported projects for Department of Defense agencies during their experience in the University of Nebraska– Lincoln Terry Research Laboratory.
Evie Ehrhorn, senior molecular and biomedical biology major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was one of six undergraduate students working closely with Dr. Paul Davis, associate professor, on several projects through NSRI during this reporting period. She specifically focused on exploring the mechanistic actions of the immune system.
Tangible Steps Toward 21st-Century Solutions
COVID-19 Pandemic Support
NSRI’s background and expertise in aerosolized bioweapons and measurement were immediately transferable to the institute’s response to COVID-19, because transmission of the virus works in a similar way. NSRI teams were able to push solutions out to sponsors quickly.
Going forward, NSRI and NU researchers will work directly with the Department of Defense to help develop and field environmental monitoring capabilities and learn more about patient transport and general troop movements with the reality of the novel coronavirus. Scientists will develop capabilities for detecting the virus with new technologies, administer clinical samples of antibodies and very comprehensively help to address the problem in virtually every aspect.
NSRI and the university have various people working on unmanned aircraft projects across this focus area. Projects include both fixed-wing chemical and biological detection devices, which expands the chemical and biological work of the last couple of years. The new systems are being developed at the request of government, military and commercial end-users who will use them to help protect military installations and other environments where biological WMD are suspected. Experience gained also is going to be used by a similar set of defense customers to evaluate detection technologies for COVID-19.
Field Test of Mass Spectrometer
With NU and commercial partners, NSRI researchers are integrating a high-pressure mass spectrometer (HPMS) into a fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS). The HPMS provides trace-level chemical vapor selectivity to discriminate priority threats from interferents, as well as actionable intelligence, in seconds. NSRI is field-testing the integrated HPMS to provide real-time trace vapor detection capabilities with geolocation tags to support find-and-fix missions. “We go into the field and put tech through its paces to make sure it works under operational conditions,” Dr. Mueller said.
Contributions to DARPA ECHO
Exciting projects in the biological domain include exploration of the human epigenome in a new way to get a diagnostic and forensic picture that contains historic events locked into each individual’s epigenome. The program goal is to harness the epigenome to determine if and when someone has been exposed to WMD precursors or agents. NSRI is coordinating the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ECHO effort focused on the large-scale production of synthetic opioids by providing subject matter expertise for opioid synthesis, operational training scenarios and sample collection for mission partners.
Training Course for Fentanyl Response and Chemical Synthesis
For the institute’s training team, NSRI chemical WMD experts provided realistic scenarios focused on pharmaceutical-based agents, including fentanyl and analogs. The chemical defense directorate provides up-to-date information and current understanding of the hazards to course instructors.
“Because overdoses have been in the news a lot over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of misinformation about the hazards and how to respond,” Dr. Mueller said. “Some of this stems from the media not understanding exactly what happens and how it works."Learn More
Developing Defense-Ready Capabilities for Impending Threats
Until NSRI’s next biennial report, much of the emphasis in this focus area will be on working in partnership with NU researchers to respond to evolving needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the beauty of this and other work NSRI and NU researchers are undertaking right now is that the current advancements will help defense decision-makers anticipate the threats to the United States that may be coming next.