Special Report - Interview with Dr. Barbara Seiders
Getting a grip on the grim and gruesome
Once the grist of thriller suspense novels such as Cobra Event by Richard Preston and Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy, biological weapons are now the subject of nonfiction and scientific literature. In Biohazard, Ken Alibek writes about the biological weapons production program in the former Soviet Union. He offers chilling revelations including research into dreaded diseases engineered to be even more virulent or contagious, and about plans to combine biological agents into deadly "cocktails." Even the American Medical Association published several articles in 1999 on the medical and public health management of key biological agents: plague, anthrax and smallpox. As the product line manager for chemical and biological defense research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Dr. Barbara Seiders leads efforts to develop methods to detect and protect against the threat of chemical and biological weapons. Speaking with her, we got a glimpse of how grim this field can be, as well as a glimmer of hope in the prospects of protecting American military and civilians against these gruesome weapons.
Is the threat of chemical and biological weapons becoming more serious?
The threat is far from new. Dangerous chemicals and disease-causing biological organisms have been used in conflict for centuries. But these weapons didn't get a lot of attention during the Cold War because they were far less devastating than nuclear weapons. With the progress of nuclear disarmament in recent years, the international community could focus on the next most serious threats—including chemical and biological weapons. Only a small number of countries have nuclear weapons, and we keep an eye on those who have the means to acquire them. Chemical and biological weapons are much more accessible—you don't need complex facilities or large teams of highly technical scientists and engineers. They're easy to manufacture and easy to hide, so it's a broader risk, but the threat has always been serious.
Then why do we hear so much more about these weapons now than a few years ago?
In the past, the defense community has carefully protected information relating to the production and use of chemical and biological agents and weapons. With the Internet, this information has exploded into the public domain. The balance has shifted to providing the public with more information as a powerful tool to help protect them against the threat.
You've worked in this field for almost twenty years. How did you get involved and why do you keep working in this grim area?
I started government service as a Diplomacy Fellow from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the State Department. Although I was assigned to work issues of nuclear nonproliferation, my colleagues knew that I was a chemist, so they routed all the chemical and biological weapons cables to me to read. In the early 1980s, we were trying to find out what agents were being used to kill people in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. I read countless reports of refugees from Laos and Cambodia describing loved ones dying of terrible hemorrhagic diseases after being exposed to clouds and mists sprayed over their villages. I found out many years later that many of these refugees were mothers describing how their young children had died in their arms. Those children are why I have stayed in this field.
What contributions are scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory making in the defense against chemical and biological weapons?
Our scientists are making important contributions in a number of areas: detection, personnel protection, decontamination and demilitarization.
In detection, for example, Dr. Karen Wahl and her team are working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the FBI in their development of mass spectrometry methods for detecting bacteria. The mass spectrometer sorts and identifies the bacterial components such as proteins, and creates a unique "fingerprint" of the bacteria. We're building a library of these fingerprints and software that would allow samples taken in the field to be quickly compared to known bacteria in the library and identified.
In other detection work, Dr. Cindy Bruckner-Lea and Dr. Darrell Chandler support a team of researchers that are building a prototype device for hazard pathogen detection for the Office of Naval Research. In this project, Pacific Northwest scientists are building the part of the device that separates bacteria and other biological material from the sample for analysis in a mass spectrometer or other detectors.
In the area of personnel protection, we just started working with Bill Rigby of Encapsulation Technologies, a small business with an office here in Richland, Washington. He developed a fog generator for radiological site cleanup at Hanford and other DOE sites. Together, we're building on his concept to include enzymes and chemicals in the fog solution that would degrade chemical and biological agents. This method could decontaminate buildings better than the traditional approach—bleach, buckets and brooms—because the fog can easily go into all the same places that a cloud of chemical or biological agent could have spread.
What is unique about what the scientists at Pacific Northwest are doing?
While other labs focus just on biological agents, or chemical weapons, or nuclear materials, very few have the expertise to address the whole spectrum of weapons types. We look for solutions to meet more than one need. The fogging technology project that I just described is a good example of this, and it represents the approach we take in many areas of our research in detection, decontamination and personnel protection. Many situations call for first rendering a hazardous situation safe—whatever the hazard might be. Before long, detectors should become available that warn of a broad spectrum of radiological, chemical and biological hazards. We're also developing decontamination and personnel protection methods that protect against a variety of hazards, whether they are chemical agents, biological agents, toxic industrial materials or common germs such as the bacteria responsible for Legionnaire's Disease.
How do this Laboratory's contributions fit into the bigger picture?
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is just one of four laboratories managed by Battelle for the Department of Energy. Aside from managing these four national laboratories, Battelle is a world leader in research and development against chemical and biological weapons. There are many, many examples of projects throughout Battelle that are helping make Americans safe from chemical and biological weapons. Scientists at the Hazardous Materials Research Center and the Medical Research and Evaluation Facility at the Battelle West Jefferson site work with actual agents in chemical surety and biological safety facilities. Around Aberdeen, Maryland, Battelle scientists, engineers and analysts are helping public safety and local law enforcement groups prepare for possible attacks with chemical or biological agents. There also are important research programs in our sister DOE laboratories, such as the biochip and mass spectrometry work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the work on Raman spectroscopy of biological organisms at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
These efforts in chemical and biological defense aren't coordinated under a single program within Battelle, but there is so much exciting research going on across the Battelle-wide family, we've started an effort to find out more about what the other labs are doing. We may find more opportunities to collaborate in this field, particularly in the biological sciences. We're hoping to share a unique approach that we enjoy here at Pacific Northwest—growing teams of scientists who play well together. Here, we cross organizational boundaries and disciplines, bringing together biologists, chemists, statisticians, spectroscopy experts, physicists, engineers and database developers. We form teams of people who have never worked together before, and they are successful and have fun. We hope to see more of it across Battelle.
What kind of benefits could this kind of collaboration bring?
The benefits definitely extend beyond the area of chemical and biological defense. Much of the work that we do in the biological sciences has additional applications. For example, some of the approaches we are investigating for pathogen monitoring could be used to screen the nation's blood supply, or monitor for airborne diseases in hospitals or other buildings. We've just begun to look into using our techniques for disease surveillance among our military, but those same techniques can be used to watch for emerging infectious diseases in public health. And while we've analyzed the safety of the food that is supplied to deployed troops, those same studies are helpful in making sure food is safe for Americans at home too.