By now, the scenario is hauntingly familiar.
In October 2001, an envelope laced with white powder was found in the Brentwood mail processing center in Washington, D.C. Within a few weeks, two postal workers were dead from inhalation anthrax. The still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks would take the lives of five people nationwide and infect dozens of others. More than $125 million was spent to decontaminate the Brentwood facility alone.
Earlier this year, ricin powder, a deadly toxin derived from the castor bean, was detected in the mail of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Thankfully, no one died; the issue of how to make buildings safe from what was once a battlefield danger—biological weapons—has become a concern for federal health and safety monitors.
The concept of “safe buildings” was barely on the radar screen of most people the day Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) researchers Dr. Richard Potember and Dr. Wayne Bryden began working on the problem. The project was supported by Independent Research and Development funding provided by APL’s Counterproliferation Business Area. The year was 1999, and the inventors, both from APL’s Research and Technology Development Center, were on a mission to find a way to neutralize toxic biological agents introduced into building ventilation systems.
More prevalent, but less publicized than the threat associated with terrorist activities, are the tens of thousands of people across the nation who die each year from staph and other infections contracted during hospital stays. Efforts to eliminate the spread of airborne diseases with vent filters and other methods have proven ineffective.
“After APL gave us the go-ahead, we started looking for solutions to these problems,” Potember says of the launch of their research. “Being chemists, we looked at chemical solutions.”
Over the next two years a pathogen neutralization prototype was developed that went on to pass independent lab tests by a certified engineering test facility in Philadelphia. The technology was quickly entered into the U.S. patent process and is currently being commercialized by a corporate partner, Bio-Defense Research Group, Inc. The technology, known as Path-Away™, was recently slated for a $4.5 million federal government contract schedule, and the first system is now being installed at APL.
James Stutler, a scientist with APL’s National Security Technology Department, was consulted for advice on bio-aerosols and microbiology. “When people are developing anything for biodefense they want to work first with simulants of virulent agents that we can’t work with normally,” Stutler says. “We can study the simulants in a safe environment.”
Various processes were tested to kill Bacillus globigii (BG) spores, a simulant for anthrax (BG is considered tougher to kill than anthrax). The system’s effect on other would-be pathogens was investigated, including simulants for smallpox, staph, flu, Legionnaires’ disease and other common biological threats.
Stutler was amazed at the results. Before undergoing the process, there was a plethora of simulants in the test samples. “Afterwards, there was nothing,” he said. “Obviously, something dramatic was going on.”
Explains Potember, “If this was going to be a system that would fit into a building, it would be best to use things that you normally have in a building like electricity, water and light. Those ingredients needed to convert into a compound that would destroy a pathogen and leave only safe components in the end.”
Although the components of the system—air, water and electricity—are simple, the details of the process are complex. The system works essentially like this: pathogen-laced air enters a reaction chamber in the heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) unit where water and free radicals neutralize the pathogens. The free radicals are then converted back into water and air molecules before leaving the chamber.
APL began moving this innovation through its technology transfer process. When the Baltimore Sun wrote a story about this exciting technology, a call came in to APL Technology Transfer Manager, Mr. J. Bacon.
On the other end of the phone was Dr. Preston McGee, chairman and CEO of Bio-Defense Research Group, Inc. (BDRGI), based in Upper Marlboro, Md. In June 2002, McGee, who formerly worked as an anthrax immunization analyst for the U.S. Army’s Office of the Surgeon General, launched his company based on this APL technology. He wanted to look for ways to stop the spread of biological agents in the environment before they infect people.
Bacon’s office qualified the company, and negotiations began. “They seemed to have a good understanding of homeland defense initiatives and to know what bioresearch is all about,” Bacon says.
The company is competing with other safe building systems, many of which rely solely on filters or a single process, such as UV light. “With the APL technology, we use a combination of things,” McGee says. “Other stand-alone systems do not have the efficacy level we have.” The latest results of Path-Away™ have shown levels of efficacy well above industry averages, according to BDRGI. Bacon points out another feature that makes the system unique. “It doesn't care about identifying the pathogens, which can be expensive; it just flat out kills them all.”
Potember, meanwhile, is making improvements, one of which earned the 2003 Invention of the Year Award for the Life Sciences category (see News Briefs). He continues to address other issues, such as how to protect agricultural products or develop neutralization systems geared to chemical agents, which could come into play in terrorism or industrial incidents.The applications for this technology keep growing.
Potember says“Developing technologies to solve real-world problems is challenging. Driving ideas from paper to the laboratory to commercialization is very gratifying.”
© 2004 The Johns Hopkins University