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Global Security Newswire

Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

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Inventors Dash to Unpack WMD Threats at Cellular Level

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Police officers put on hazardous-materials suits to train for biological or chemical attacks in 2005. Scientists are racing to develop new procedures capable of quickly determining how chemicals and microbes attack humans at the cellular level. Police officers put on hazardous-materials suits to train for biological or chemical attacks in 2005. Scientists are racing to develop new procedures capable of quickly determining how chemicals and microbes attack humans at the cellular level. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Scientists are waging an under-the-microscope battle to determine how weaponized chemical and biological agents behave inside cells to kill their victims.

Teams of specialists are roughly six months into a five-year dash for technologies capable of determining how a biological or chemical invader acts on a molecular level to assault the human body, the project's top Defense Department overseer told Global Security Newswire. The initiative -- dubbed "Rapid Threat Assessment" -- would ideally yield techniques capable of providing a full readout of an unconventional weapon material within 30 days, allowing for fast preparation of new medical treatments.

"It's a little early to make any predictions of future success," said Barry Pallotta, who is heading the project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Project participants are acting on their own timelines to pursue various visions for analytical systems capable of determining exactly when, where and how foreign invaders acts inside of human cells, Pallotta wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

He said the goal is to develop methods of revealing the molecular blow-by-blow of an unconventional weapon's course of attack "with 95 percent accuracy."

"Each project team ... is currently focused on meeting the milestones that come due at the end of the base period about a year from now," Pallotta wrote.

His agency said inventors would then face a test where they will have 30 days "to detect, identify, reconstruct, and confirm the mechanism of a demonstration compound."

Proposals deemed to show enough promise could see their funding renewed for up to three additional 14-month cycles, according to a DARPA broad agency announcement from last year.

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