U.C. Davis Lab Prepares in Fight against Bioterrorism

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is taking a "Mission Impossible" approach to battling bioterrorism -- assembling a top team of its scientists to fight threats such as anthrax, plague and smallpox.

A new center at the lab, partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security, will be an incubator for cutting-edge science and technology for detecting and identifying threats.

A second new center at the lab will use the same team approach to capitalize on these scientific advances, as well as bioscience discoveries from the rest of the lab, and apply them to medical and environmental problems.

Both -- heralded Thursday at a special roll-out at the lab -- bring together lab chemists, physicists, biologists and geologists to turn the full power of their combined expertise toward biosecurity issues and life-threatening diseases.

The BioSecurity and Nanosciences Laboratory has already developed technology that can detect and identify airborne pathogens from a single cell in less than a second.

A prototype of the detector was sent to Florida in 2001 to help screen the huge numbers of suspicious powders sent to the Florida Department of Health following the post-Sept. 11 anthrax attacks. Previous screening methods took days for each sample.

"You give us a suspicious substance and we can tell you instantaneously if it's something you should be worried about," said Keith Coffee, an analytical chemist who works on the detector.

The device is sensitive enough to discern between strains of anthrax and could help investigators trace the origins of pathogens used in attacks.

Coffee's team is working to make the device -- currently about the size of a washer/dryer set -- smaller and more portable so that it can be deployed more quickly.

In the future, the technology could be used for a range of problems including monitoring ventilation systems in buildings and detecting whether a patient is contagious. It could also be used to screen travelers for SARS and other illnesses before boarding planes or other public transportation.

The second "Mission Impossible"-style center -- the Center for Biotechnology, Biophysical Sciences and Bioengineering -- has already partnered with UC Davis Cancer Center to develop technologies for detecting and treating cancer.

One promising diagnostic technique in the works aims to identify cancer in individual cells using "laser tweezers." By focusing a laser on a single cell, scientists can analyze and compare the molecular compositions of the cells.

"By probing a healthy cell and a cancer cell, we can detect the difference, and that can be our signature for cancer," said physicist James Chan.

Chan's team is currently working on the molecular fingerprint for leukemia, but the scientists plan to create a library of signatures for different cancers that will help with quick diagnoses.

They hope to someday be able to point the laser at suspicious cells in a patient's body and determine if they are cancerous within minutes, eliminating the need for a surgical biopsy.

The center is also working on making radiation therapy more accessible. They are working on technology to take a proton radiation system -- which costs more than $100 million dollars and is the size of a basketball court -- and making it into a portable, table-top device that costs less than $10 million.

"It will revolutionize how people treat cancer," said Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Cancer Center.

"Together we really will beat this disease."