Washington Editor

WASHINGTON Long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare that followed, the Department of Defense had been studying biotechnology as a strategic industry that could be integrated into military health care and operations.

And in recent months, the Office of Net Assessment of the DOD has issued results of a two-year study detailing advantages of biotechnology in its report, “Exploring Biotechnology’s Opportunities for the Department of Defense.”

The report goes hand in hand with a post-Sept. 11 survey conducted by the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) aimed at determining how the industry could better help address the nation’s public health needs. BIO said about 450 of its member companies responded, and many indicated willingness to assist in homeland security, but had no idea which office to call in the vast bureaucracy of the DOD.

Thus, BIO stepped in and organized a conference in conjunction with the DOD, scheduled April 30, to provide a forum for company representatives to inform military personnel of the technology they have available.

“This is a good opportunity to accomplish two goals,” Brent Erickson, BIO’s vice president, industrial and environmental biotechnology, told BioWorld Today. “One, to help integrate biotechnology into the DOD, and to help us identify the right people for our companies to bring their products to. We’re talking about all the defensive products vaccines, therapeutics, antibiotics, antivirals, right on down the line to other things like enzymes for decontamination, biological chemical warfare detectors, bio-based energy production and polymers.”

Col. Jack Warner, an author of the report who works in the Office of Net Assessment, said of biotechnology, “If you look at historical models of so-called new technology, for example, information technology and the way that within a relatively short period of time the last 30 years or so there’s been an infusion of it throughout the military, we now may be standing on a similar precipice with biotechnology,” he said.

In the report, Warner said, “We looked at the fundamental science to see if it would be usable in ways beyond our current expertise in biodefense and medical aspects.”

The military has a need for certain medicines and vaccines that would not be useful to the general population. For example, Warner said the military commonly loses about 15 percent of its people in expeditionary operations because of environmental conditions such as hypothermia or diseases that are specific to certain areas of the world. Typically, there’s not a lot of research in these areas.

“That’s an example of where we would sponsor research and work to develop these new types of Third World immunology that would benefit not only our expeditionary forces but would also give some civil defense utility as well as having global implications for world health,” Warner said.

Other areas would involve research into human performance such as sleep deprivation or high-altitude exposure.

Aside from drugs or biologics, Warner said a section of the report also deals with material science and logistics. Specifically, certain products can be developed through advancing science that would better protect military personnel.

There are bullet-proof vests made of spider silk that provide the flexibility of regular linen but also have the ability to disseminate energy and hold up against small arms fire. Also, Warner described sleeping bags composed of a combination of nanotechnology and biology that can serve as a shelter against biological attacks because they engage detectors and filtering mechanisms.

There’s also the possibility of using biology in concert with fuel cell technologies to replace batteries and field generators, “which apparently use dangerous metals and fossil fuels,” Warner said.

For more information on the conference, visit BIO’s website at www.bio.org.