EWU Gets $1.2 Million Grant to Develop Bioterrorism Defense Equipment


CHENEY, WA - Eastern Washington University has just received a $1.2 million grant from the Office of Naval Research for a project to develop prototypes for detecting airborne microbes used in biological warfare or bioterrorism.

Eastern will provide the science and two eastern Washington companies will develop the equipment components in this Navy-funded project, which will be developed as a university-industry partnership through the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI).

"This grant affirms Eastern's continuing participation with SIRTI for the development of high tech companies for the Inland Northwest," said Dr. Stephen M. Jordan, president of Eastern.

Biophysicist Jeanne Small, a professor of chemistry/biochemistry at Eastern, is the lead investigator in the project. InnovaTek of Richland and Quantum Northwest of Spokane are the companies which will develop the prototype components.

"We are seeing examples in our own society of potential threats using airborne pathogens, such as the recent scare at Spokane's Planned Parenthood concerning a possible anthrax contamination," Small said. "Because of our concern about the release of harmful microbes, we will be developing prototypes that monitor the air and warn that a particular particle is present."

When a harmful microbe is released, it usually takes a few days for symptoms to show in people who have been exposed, she said, "so as soon as we can detect the harmful agent, the sooner we can deal with it and take steps to provide vaccines or antibiotics for individuals who have been exposed -- before they even exhibit signs of exposure."

Small said she hopes that eventually a detector can be developed that can be placed on the wall of buildings or areas that may be subject to bioterrorism, much like a smoke detector, to monitor the air.

However, in the first year of the three-year project, a large prototype will be built. During the second year, a smaller portable device will be developed that can be taken into the field. And in the final year, the refined device will be tested at a military facility.

The science behind this is photoacoustics. Small will be working with Eastern biologists Don and Haideh Lightfoot, a graduate assistant and an electrical engineering faculty member from Washington State University to shine different pulses of laser light into particles and then listen to the response of those particles using special microphones.

"We believe the right variations of color and intensity of light will allow us to come up with an acoustic sound signature for different pathogens," Small said. "It is important to state that we will not be working with anthrax or other harmful agents. We will be using simulants, the kind that are so safe they are routinely used in biology labs."

InnovaTek will produce the airborne bio-particle collectors and Quantum Northwest will make the photoacoustic detectors. SIRTI will assist in furthering the technology that is developed into the marketplace.

Small noted that SIRTI played an important role in urging that money be given to the Office of Naval Research for this kind of project. Eastern was one of the universities in the nation which applied for the grant, which was awarded on a competitive basis.

Jeanne Small, who earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University, is a biophysicist whose primary research involves laser technology for exploring biological molecules. Her self-described niche is in photoacoustics.

Some of her other research includes examining how protein molecules fold into their functional shapes, for which Eastern has received a patent. "Proteins don't work until they are folded in the right way, so this examination is important," Small said.

For more information about Eastern's $1.2 million Office of Naval Research grant, please contact Jeanne Small at (509) 359-2257 or e-mail: jsmall@ewu.edu.