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Pentagon to Shift Focus of $1B Bioterror Research Program

The U.S. Defense Department is set to alter the priorities of a 5-year-old program that has made little progress toward developing countermeasures for pathogens that might be genetically tweaked for an act of bioterrorism, despite $1 billion in funding, the Boston Globe reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 11, 2010).

Independent research entities funded under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Transformational Medical Technologies Initiative were unable to overcome key obstacles in genetic research, officials and biological terrorism experts said. Of more than 50 studies funded by the program and carried out by more than 100 university laboratories, pharmaceutical groups and biotechnology firms, only two drugs of potential use have emerged, the Globe reported. Preliminary clinical trials of the treatments remained a distant possibility.

“We’re years away from any reasonable [Food and Drug Administration] certification, let alone production," said a Defense Department contractor with ties to the program.

The Pentagon program is expected in the future to emphasize development of new means of spotting genetically modified versions of such viruses as Ebola and Marburg, DTRA Science and Technology Director Alan Rudolph said.

The initiative would still be aimed in the long term at creating countermeasures useful in treating infections that involve a wide variety of biological agents, Rudolph said.

The program would also take into account disease agents including Junin, Lassa, Machupo and Sabia, paying particular attention to variants of the pathogens that produce harsher hemorrhagic fever and respond less to existing countermeasures.

One analyst noted the ambitious aims of the program as it was originally conceived after the 2001 anthrax mailings.

“They are trying to come up with new medical technologies that are more difficult to develop," said Crystal Franco, a biological defense policy expert with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity. “They are really trying to push the envelope."

Ethical boundaries preclude testing the effectiveness of countermeasures on humans, posing another complication in refining such treatments, according to the Globe.

Genetically altering a disease agent for use as a weapon is less demanding a task than producing a countermeasure for such an agent, another expert said.

“The offensive capabilities outrun the defensive capabilities as the march of biology continues," said former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, a bioterrorism specialist on the Defense Department's Defense Policy Board (Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, Jan. 17).

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