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10/30/2001 - University Research Aimed at Biological Weapons

Anthrax and biological terrorism have recently drawn news media attention to the photoacoustic research being carried out by Dr. Jeanne Small, Professor of Biochemistry, Eastern Washington University in collaboration with Dr. Margaret Mortz, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Washington State University at Spokane. Because of the timeliness of this research, the Terabyte Triangle Newsletter is adapting an article from Volume 1, Issue 2 that explains the project and some of the results. Their work was made possible by a million dollar plus grant from the Office of Naval Research that was facilitated by SIRTI.

Defining the eastern edge or the Terabyte Triangle, Spokane’s Riverpoint Campus houses laboratories, classrooms, and faculty offices shared by EWU and WSU Spokane. Photoacoustics was an area of interest among the faculty group, and from that interest grew collaboration between Dr. Mortz and Dr. Small.

Their idea was to use photoacoustics to identify agents used in biological weaponry. “We are inventing a whole new field,” said Dr. Mortz, “this has never been done before.” Dr. Small wrote a grant proposal that was put out for bid by the Navy, and the Office of Naval Research funded the project for over $1 million.

To increase the collaborative scope, a brainstorming focus group was organized among statewide academic and industrial scientists. The participants were from EWU, WSU, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and InnovaTek.

“The brainstorming session was one of the most exhilarating, intellectually stimulating exercises I’ve ever had,” exclaimed Dr. Small.

The project involves determining what airborne particles are coming in, determining whether they are biological in nature, and then whether they are living or dead. All questions requiring instant answers when applied to biological weapons.

Dr. Small explained the three general areas of the project. In sequence:

· Particles are sucked out of the air with a special air collection system..
· Particles undergo photoacoustic testing which hits the particle with strong laser light. The heated particle produces sound.
· The photoacoustic data is analyzed using Digital Signal Processing.

InnovaTek, a company in Richland, WA, developed and commercialized the aerosol collector that makes this research feasible. Simply put, the airborne particle is captured and funneled in a liquid into a capillary sized tube. A laser is focused on a spot in the center of the tube. As development continues, the resulting machinery will evolve toward a “bioweapons detector”, similar to a smoke detector, but initially larger and more expensive.

The creation of an intercollegiate, academic/industrial team was almost as innovative as the subject matter. The team partners are EWU, InnovaTek, Quantum Northwest, GenPrime, and WSU Spokane. The team members include seven Ph.D’s in chemistry, biology, microbiology, and electrical engineering; one masters degree holder, and one Ph.D. student.

Of this team of nine, five, including the Principal Investigator, are women, and there are two husband and wife teams. “There is great camaraderie and a real sense of teamwork,” said Dr. Small. “This is felt to be a team effort, and there is a lot of intellectually challenging communications among the team members.”

“Although the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has departments of microbiology and acoustical research, they never thought of working together,” reported Dr. Small. We have broken down the barriers to create a truly intercollegiate project with true collaboration with industry.

After many months of experimental experience and over 100,000 experiments performed, results are very promising. There have been experimental complications: instruments have had to be calibrated and standardized, the data is very complex, and analysis techniques have been refined. In March 2001, progress was presented at a an Interdisciplinary mini-symposium on data analysis and hardware for photoacoustics with percipients from EWU, WSU Spokane, Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, UW, and University of Parma (Italy).

To combat the distortions caused by listening equipment such as transducers, Dr. Mortz produced a mathematical antidote that undoes the distorting effect and lets the original undistorted signal become revealed. This method is called deconvolution.

The experimental group found that stray electric signals from other equipment contaminate the acoustic signals. Along with some physical improvements in the equipment itself, noise reduction can be scrubbed away using a computer technique (wavelet denoising) that cleans the signal.

The bacteria’s telltale signals are very complex, messy, and contain a multitude of data. The feature extraction process is to attempt to distill this complex signal down to a handful of numbers that can then be looked up in a database. This handful of numbers is called a ‘feature vector’.

Several different methods of distillation have been compared, each using elaborate mathematical techniques and implemented by a powerful computer. Preliminary results have been encouraging. The prior use of distortion and noise removal makes this distillation truly feasible. Continuing research may very well lead to “the product.”

Although this is basic research, looking for answers to fundamental questions, the ONR hopes, but does not require, that a product will result. The inclusion of the industrial partners facilitates conceptualization and development of a product. At least one product is expected to result from the collaboration. One product possibility – “the bioweapons detector”-- is an instrument that would collect particles, read data, and report quickly. In a battlefield situation or in a post office, lives might then be saved from biological weapons. -- Billie Moreland

Billie Moreland
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