Local News

Triangle Researchers On Front Line Of Bioterrorism Defense

Posted February 3, 2003 2:31 a.m. EST

— Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the anthrax scare that followed, bioterrorism has been on the minds of Americans.

Agents such as anthrax, smallpox, plague and others are cheap stealth weapons. If effectively delivered, they can kill untold millions of people, according to experts.

Triangle universities and biotechnology companies are uniquely qualified to help fight these bioweapons of mass destruction. Biodefense is a major effort in Triangle laboratories.

The anthrax outbreaks of 2001 demonstrated that we are susceptible to bioweapons.

"It's a real threat. It's something to understand and deal with, though not be panicked by," said Dr. William Roper, dean of the UNC School of Public Health.

Work is under way from federal to local levels to defend against such attacks. Roper serves on the president's Terrorism Preparedness and Prevention Task Force.

He said the country must prepare because biowarfare is very real.

"[We must prepare] so that we can be ready when the next episode happens. Notice I didn't say


it happens. I said


it happens," Roper said.

The Triangle's strength in biotechnology and university research is attracting federal money to battle smallpox, anthrax and other deadly agents.

"All of a sudden we need to detect, defend and treat," said Dr. Mark Dibner,



Triangle efforts include outfitting modular containment labs by Certek. The labs will be used to test samples received by health departments and the Pentagon.

"Then they'll analyze them and see what it is -- run all kinds of tests on them to see where it came from, that kind of thing," said James Grantham, Certek president.

Researchers work in labs across the Triangle, developing new vaccines to battle bioweapons.

Alphavax researchers use molecular biology to fight the Marburg virus, which is similar to the deadly Ebola virus.

First responders are being inoculated against smallpox; however, 40 million Americans are not candidates for inoculation.

Chimerix, in RTP, is modifying an existing compound to fight smallpox with a pill, which is still months or years away.

"There's the potential, by way of Iraq, of smallpox getting in the hands of bioterrorists. So it is an acute and immediate problem," said George Painter, Chimerex CEO.

Another RTP company, BioMachines, is working to miniaturize robotic test equipment. Tiny bio chips can collect deadly pathogens.

"Ultimately, where you would like to be able to use it is in the field. So you want something that is both sensitive specific and portable and easy to use," said Rick Sheridan, BioMachines CEO.

The Triangle is home to major federal facilities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and an Army research office.

The EPA's former building could be used as one of four major centers for infectious disease research.

"The work that our companies are doing in this area will not just help the people in this region, but they'll help people all over the country and potentially all over the world address these challenges," said Dr. Leslie Alexandre of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

The Triangle's unique assets position the area for leadership in biodefense around the world and in our own backyard.

"Not in some faroff place, but right here in the central part of North Carolina. We may be the victim of a case of bioterrorism," Roper said.

UNC and Duke University are working with other southeastern universities to bring a multimillion-dollar federal research facility to the area. If that happens, Triangle-area scientists will play an even more important role in the war on terrorism.

Reporter: Tom Lawrence