ASU nuclear-emergency research project moves to product development phase


Joe Caspermeyer

When a false alarm warning of an impending nuclear missile launch recently panicked Hawaiians, it raised bigger questions on U.S. emergency preparedness.

ASU has been at the research forefront with a multi-million, multi-year project aimed at helping to triage a population in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Recently, GenomeWeb updated its readers on the progress of Project Bioshield, funded by the US Department of Defense’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

One of the BARDA projects featured was from ASU’s Biodesign Institute, led by Biodesign executive director Josh LaBaer to develop tests to rapidly measure radiation exposure, or biodosimetry tests.

The test from ASU is meant to quantify how much radiation a person was exposed to after a single explosive event.

"This particular tool was specifically for detecting gamma radiation exposure to civilians if a nuclear bomb were detonated in a city or populated area," Josh LaBaer, told Genomeweb.

In the article, reporter Madeleine Johnson told of the research issues that had to be overcome to be one of the few funded to advance from project discovery to the product development phase.

“The researchers had to grapple with things like proximity to a blast and whether or not people were directly exposed or behind concrete walls.

"If it is detonated 1,000 feet above the ground it is going to have one radiation angle at which it is going to hit people, whereas if it is exploded from the inside of a shopping center that is going to have a different angle of exposure — our tool doesn't worry about how the radiation gets to you, but focuses on how much radiation did you absorb," LaBaer said.

The ASU test looks at the effect of radiation on gene expression in white blood cells and runs on real-time PCR systems from Thermo Fisher Scientific such as the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx and QuantStudio Dx, as previously reported. The choice of platform was meant to enhance the ability to utilize qPCR instruments that already exist, and are regularly maintained in clinical labs.

"The last thing you want in the event of a nuclear explosion is to have to dust off a brand-new machine and pull out the instruction manual," LaBaer said.

It will assess the level of exposure, from the moment of an event until seven days after, gauging exposure levels up to 10 gray, where somewhere in the 4 to 6 gray range is a lethal dose, LaBaer said.”

The group has whittled down a large pool of potential biomarkers to around 13 or so, LaBaer said. It used animal models and has done verification studies, and is gearing up for a large validation study.

The project was also a good example of ASU creating a win-win scenario when academia partners with industry to advance the science.

During the multi-year, nearly $40 million project, the Biodesign Institute partnered with industry leader Thermo Fisher Scientific's Life Sciences Solutions business, which has since been licensed to MRIGlobal for further development.

LaBaer said MRIGlobal won funding worth $100 million over 10 years using the ASU technology, and they will now be developing it further. "We're shifting from discovery to product development," LaBaer said. 

The funding involved in-process review sessions at BARDA where a team of 40 experts would review data and presentations. "We got reviewed probably a half-dozen times, over the course of that period and the majority of people in the program were not continued for funding."