U.S. Army scientists are developing new technologies, including smartphones that detect and identify chemical and biological agents, to empower soldiers.
Dr. Calvin Chue, a research biologist with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, or RDECOM, is focused on the next generation of devices to protect soldiers and civilians against unknown chemical or biological threats.
“The biggest threat is always going to be the emerging pathogen, the things you hear about on the news where pools of disease pop up randomly,” Chue said.
“We have soldiers deployed around the world. Being able to develop tools and technologies to pick up those unknown hazards before [soldiers] are exposed to them is a large measure of what we do.”
“I’ve chosen to come to the government side because we’re able to make the most practical impact in developing tools that directly meet the needs of soldiers. The other nice thing about here at government labs is having direct interaction with warfighters. We can build tools that they tell us they need,” he said.
DETECTING HAZARDS WITH A SMARTPHONE
ECBC’s BioSciences Division is conducting research on sensors embedded with smartphones to identify unknown or suspicious samples, Chue said.
“We’re trying to develop new kinds of sensors that a soldier could use to amplify their knowledge in the field,” Chue said. “For example, a soldier might go to a new area and plant 30 or 40 different chemical and biological sensor devices.
“They would be tied back to a smartphone or tablet that is providing the user interface display. That is a new modality, and it expands the soldier’s senses.”
In addition to on-site diagnostics in the field, the smartphone could send results to a command post or a laboratory for further analysis. The work on chem-bio sensors at ECBC will be integrated with the communications and electronics research community within the Army, Chue said. He anticipates a practical application for soldier use within five to six years.
Chue said another benefit of the smartphone sensors will be to unburden soldiers by reducing the size and weight of detectors they already have access to.
“If [soldiers] have a weight limitation, they have to choose what they’re not carrying. By going with the small, distributed sensors, we’re hoping to give them the power without the limitations,” he said. “They will be able to deploy a chemical sensor at a distance or a biological detector that perhaps will be based on odorant detection or sampling the air for nucleic acids.
“All of that information comes back to a phone or platform that has been deployed with them. It gives them integration and power that they would not have otherwise.”
FUSING BIOLOGY, ENGINEERING
Another key initiative within the BioSciences Division is fusing the disciplines of biology and engineering.
Chue described a partnership between ECBC, Specific Technologies of Mountain View, Calif., and the Defense Science Technology Laboratory in Great Britain to replace the sense of smell by using paper.
“A paper-based modality is where you get a color change in the presence of certain kinds of odorants. That’s a fusing of the biology with engineering and chemistry to create a simple, easy-to-use product that doesn’t require any special equipment,” he said.
ECBC is also developing processes to test grown human organs using new three-dimensional printer technology with the Wake Forest University for Regenerative Medicine, Harvard University Medical School, Morgan State University and The Johns Hopkins University, Chue said. Instead of printing ink, the printer places layer upon layer of cells to build on organ.
The artificial organs could help scientists understand how the body responds to chemical and biological agents.
“This may allow us to grow new kinds of sensors. We would like to grow an immune organ that could respond to chemical and biological insults,” he said. “It’s probably at least several decades before it has a practical application. It’s the kind of long-term science that we’re making an investment in because it will benefit the service member in the end.”
FOUNDATION FOR FUTURE MILITARY SCIENTISTS
Chue said many life-science researchers do not understand the contributions they could make to soldiers and the public while working in a military laboratory. He is trying to reverse those misconceptions.
“It was fortuitous to begin my career with the U.S. military and it has been a great place to work to be able to continue that,” he said. “It’s most important to be at the scientific forefront for our soldiers to know what risks they may be exposed to and protect them from that as best we can.
“We hope to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers to choose a career working for a government or military laboratory. It’s rare that people in the life sciences think about working for the military. We’re doing a wide variety of things to not just benefit the soldier, but also the American public.”
By Mr. Dan Lafontaine (RDECOM)
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