A Biodefence Mission for Traditional Immunologists



How much government money should be spent on national security may be a controversial issue. But one thing is sure: with increasing cash injections new opportunities are opening, and the applications of the resulting science may reach far beyond protection against terrorism.

Research for National Security

Dr. Danny Altmann, Reader in Immunology at Imperial College London and Hammersmith Hospital in the UK, has recently received funding from the US National Institute of Health ( NIH) to develop new vaccines against biological agents such as anthrax. Also involved in the $4.5 million project are the University of Newcastle and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in the UK, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, in the US, and the U.S. Navy.

In principle, designing a vaccine against anthrax will be similar to designing a vaccine against any other bacteria, explains Altmann, in that it will draw on basic immunology concepts and techniques. Immunology expertise will be brought in by the two British academic departments, with Imperial College concentrating on the immunogenetics aspects, "making transgenic mice and analysing T cells, and Newcastle being at the biochemistry end of T cell immunology," explains Altmann.

But to make a vaccine, proteins must first be purified from the infectious agent. Later, the protective effect of potential vaccines must then be tested. Both of these steps involve the use of live anthrax, something the two British departments aren't prepared for. "We couldn't do it without the two others," says Altmann. "Baltimore has a long history of molecular biology [to purify] proteins from these bacteria for vaccine studies," he says, "and Porton Down is crucial because we need to do tests in real mice, and the number of places in the world where you can give live anthrax are very few."

Even though the four groups are looking at a common question and using similar techniques, they are coming at it from two different ends. "The groups at Porton Down and Baltimore are very firmly rooted in the biodefence community, with a very particular mindset and set of priorities," says Altmann. While in academia one may do research for its intellectual beauty, the biodefence community is very focused on applying research to national protection. "I am impressed when I go to biodefence meetings, by the strong sense of mission that many of the young researchers have for wanting to do something useful."

Making it in biodefence

Whether interested in the basic or applied end of biodefence research, to break into this field one needs to be a "very bright, committed person with a strong training in the relevant fields, like for any other biomedical research," says Altmann. This is echoed by Stephen Hibbs, who was seconded from Dstl in the UK to work at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore. and assist Dr. Leslie Baillie, Associate Professor, Biodefence Initiative, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. "People want to get on doing great things" in their lives, he says, but first "they have to learn the basic skills" in research, says Hibbs.

Young scientists also need to be aware of certain adjustments that must be made in working on a project relevant to national security. "Lots of safety questions come up for the dirty work," says Altmann, stressing how disastrous any mistake could be. Researchers also have to think about the wider impacts of their work, and the risks that go with them. "Things like 9/11 and the release of anthrax in the U.S. postal system do have to make us think more seriously about the threats we could face from bioterrorism," says Altmann. "So, for example, you tend to scrutinise your writing and presentations carefully to check that you haven't said anything that could inadvertently fall into the wrong hands and give people ideas for how to generate weapons."

When Biodefence Feeds into Medical Science

Altmann got into national security primarily through his interests in medical science, when some research he was doing on bacterial infections and septic shock in intensive care units drew the attention of the biodefence community. "Through contacts in the States, we were told that we should approach DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)], another branch of the US military-related American funding system "to fund our work on countermeasures to bacterial toxins," he says.

His current project on an anthrax vaccine also falls at the interface between mainstream medical research and biodefence. "When I saw the call for proposals, I interpreted it as a golden opportunity to do some good molecular immunology on the immune response to bacteria," he says. "Part of the fallout from this programme will be improved vaccines to a wide range of pathogens that cause death in the developing world but normally don't get a look in because they aren´t big markets for the private sector."

Prospects for Young Scientists

Hibbs says there is funding available now for research in biodefence. But to Altmann, the US not only has more money to spend on national security than the UK, it also offers a more innovative and cooperative approach to research grant proposals. "This is in marked contrast to the situation we often face going for mainstream funding in the UK," he says, "where one invests massive efforts in a grant application, goes through a lengthy, multi-stage review process, gets magnificent peer review comments, then many months later get told that unfortunately there are insufficient funds for your project."

Altmann sees biodefence as a very exciting area for young scientists to go into, and opportunities are plenty. However he would "always advise young scientists to keep their intellectual outlook and training broad so that they keep doors open and remain pluripotent for as long as possible," he says. "It is better for marketability to be someone considered to have expertise in murine T cell immunology than someone who considers themselves an expert on how to protect a mouse from anthrax."

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