Chemistry department nabs largest-ever grant to combat chemical threats

A GW research team will use a nearly $15 million grant to work toward a major breakthrough combating biological and chemical terrorism, speeding up scientists’ responses to global crises like anthrax breakouts.

While it could take months or years for scientists to track down the cause of a threat like a toxic substance, a team led by chemistry and biochemistry professor Akos Vertes is looking to cut down the length of that process to just one month.

The research would focus on some of the most dangerous chemicals and biological agents, like anthrax, which can spread through the air and kill large numbers of people. Difficult to detect, the agents can spread quickly and deteriorate a person’s nervous system.

Knowing the cause of the threat not only allows for a quicker scientific response, but “also provides important information for pharmaceutical companies developing drugs that may be unrelated to the threat,” Vertes said in a release.

The grant is the largest ever for the chemistry department, its chair Michael King said.

“[When] a new or novel chemical or biological threat agent is deployed to a population, what can you do to neutralize it? You have to find out and ask how it works,” King, who teaches organic chemistry, said.

The organization that funded the grant – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – hopes the study will improve the nation’s ability to handle security threats.

GW has fared well as federal research budgets have declined over the last year. For the first half of the fiscal year, expenditures increased about 10 percent compared to 2013.

The researchers will delve into under-studied fields of science, like bioinformatics, Vertes said. Their effort will be bolstered by new technology like a system he developed himself to more quickly identify the chemical makeup of certain structures.

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