Bio-Warfare Detectives: Field Identification of Biological Warfare Agents-FIBWA

Article excerpt

THE narrow gravel path leads to a cluster of ISO shelters at Fort Detrick, Md. A brown sign identifies the compound as the "Field Identification of Biological Warfare Agents--Laboratory Training Site." Inside, the air conditioning is blasting while music plays from a portable stereo. Two laboratories, each with four workstations, adjoin a central conference room.

In this setting, eight students will learn to set up, maintain, and operate a deployable laboratory under field conditions. The four-week, hands-on FIBWA course offers gaining in the most advanced field technologies to confirm the field identification of biological-warfare agents.

Developed by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, FIBWA is the only course of its kind in the Department of Defense.

"FIBWA grew out of the need for battlefield detection of BW agents," said Dr. Mark Wolcott, head of the Field Operations and Training Branch in USAMRIID's Diagnostic Systems Division. "As field detectors were developed and deployed, the ability to confirm what the detectors were 'seeing' was crucial to add confidence for battlefield, medical, and national command authority decisions. The requirement for a deployable BW agent confirmation laboratory was born."

Nearly 200 students have attended the course since it was first offered in 1999. To ensure the training stays on the cutting edge, concepts of operations, diagnostic materials, equipment and technology are continually evaluated and transitioned into the field.

* Hands-On Training

Students spend the first two days of training learning the history of biological warfare and receiving briefings on laboratory concepts, current techniques and field-laboratory operations. The fundamentals of biological safety are also introduced. Next, they spend nine days learning how to extract genetic material--DNA and RNA--from multiple sample types, along with a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is used to identify the extracted DNA and RNA.

Using even the tiniest fragment of genetic material present in a sample, PCR enables large numbers of copies of a particular gene to be produced, thus making definitive identification possible. PCR yields reliable results in just 2 to 4 hours.

One component of the FIBWA training is "real time" PCR using an instrument called the Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device, which was specially designed for military field labs. This instrument's technology offers rapid, safe, and accurate field identification of potentially dangerous pathogens.

* A New Level of Respect

SGT Sean Brown from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., is a microbiologist with clinical-laboratory and blood-bank experience.

"Having a good grasp of molecular biology helped," he said. "I had done PCR before but enjoyed being trained on the latest instruments.

"Getting to work with the real agents was the most surprising aspect of the course," he said. …