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UMD Researchers Receive $5M to Develop Influenza Threat Tests

August 5, 2015

Audrey Hill 301-314-0780

Funds to assist in the development of non-invasive methods to
test lab workers suspected of working with influenza to create a bioweapon

Dr. Donald Milton, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UMDCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland School of Public Health received a $5 million grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop methods for quick detection of targeted “biomarkers” in laboratory workers suspected of working with influenza viruses to create a bioweapon. IARPA is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Dr. Donald Milton, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UMD, and his research team, which includes experts from the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, will develop new ways to identify environmental exposures (known as the “exposome”) by collecting and testing skin, exhaled air, and hair through non-invasive methods. 

“Everything you have been exposed to since conception is your exposome: everything you have eaten, drank, breathed, touched, every ray of sunlight that struck your skin is part of your exposome,” explains Dr. Milton, who is a professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “While we cannot directly measure or test the exposome, we can find signatures left by the exposures that lab workers may have had, which could enable us to detect influenza threats.” 

Signatures of exposure can be detected in proteins from the lungs that come out in tiny droplets as people breathe, in microorganisms on the skin and in hair, which are all altered by each individual’s unique history of exposures. To measure these changes, Dr. Milton’s team will sample exhaled breath for altered proteins in the lungs and test to identify differences in antibodies that are produced when someone is infected with the influenza virus versus being vaccinated against it. 

The researchers will also test to detect VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from chemical exposures, and residue from anti-flu drugs (such as Tamiflu) in hair samples.  They will also analyze lab workers’ microbiomes (the community of microorganisms present on skin) for alterations due to working with ferrets, which are the model organism for studying influenza because they are susceptible to the same strains as humans. 

Dr. Milton’s previous research has demonstrated that submicron (smaller than one millionth of a meter) exhaled droplets from the deep lung of flu sufferers contain infectious influenza virus. The team is developing new technologies to sample exhaled breath (bioaerosol samplers), to measure proteins such as antibodies (high sensitivity immunoassays), and to analyze exhaled proteins than have previously existed, which will be used to assess exposome signatures from laboratory workers who work with both influenza viruses and ferrets. The development of these technologies, along with other orthogonal measures, is intended to make it possible to identify and thwart a potential threat posed by someone working to engineer a flu virus for offensive purposes.   

Experts in aerosol science; protein chemistry; chemical, mechanical and bio-engineering; microfluidic fabrication; environmental exposure assessment; molecular biology, and pulmonary physiology and medicine will contribute to the development of these new technologies.

Other University of Maryland collaborators on the College Park campus include: