Developing Countermeasures for Bio-Terror Weapons


April 11th, 2016

Kenneth Bayles, PhD., is the associate vice chancellor for basic science research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Kenneth Bayles, PhD., is the associate vice chancellor for basic science research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

The University of Nebraska Medical Center plays a critical role in the Nation’s fight against bio-terrorism. Kenneth Bayles, one of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s top research scientists, talks with our Ryan Robertson. 

For more on UNMC’s Science Cafe’s, click here

Ryan Robertson: Dr. Bayles, you’re the Associate Vice Chancellor of Basic Science Research at UNMC. The talk you are going to be giving [Monday night] is on Countermeasures for Biological Weapons of Terror. That sounds like a frightening topic, are you scared every day you go into work?

Kenneth Bayles: No. I’m not afraid. I mean it’s really something that unfortunately is a part of our world. Nowadays we have to be vigilant about what’s happening out there, and fortunately we have a government that is trying to stay ahead of the curve and making sure that we have the appropriate vaccines and inhibitors and anti-toxins that we’ll be able to fight some of these terrorist organizations.

RR: What kind of countermeasures are we developing here at UNMC?

KB: Well there are a variety of things. There are vaccines. There are inhibitors for various toxins like botulinum toxin. There are antidotes to various neuro-toxic gases like sarin gas that you’ve heard about before. And we have anti-bodies to ricin toxin as well so there’s a variety of things.

RR: How much has your work increased over the last five, ten years? How much has your work become more of a necessity over that time?

KB: Well my work has really increased because of our designation at the University of Nebraska as a UARC, a university affiliated research center. That has brought us a lot of D.O.D. contracts, a lot of interest in developing our capabilities in bio-defense research. Personally, I got into the business of bacterial pathogens and looking for countermeasures to staph infections. I’ve been into that for a long time and. It was an easy transition for me to go from development of staph vaccines to the development of vaccines against things like anthrax which is what my project is now.
RR: Is there any one vaccine that’s more of a priority than another because there’s more of a threat from one biological source than another?

KB: Yeah, that’s a hard question to answer. I think that a lot of that is driven by what’s happening on the ground right now. I mean certainly after the 2001 mail or letter attacks with anthrax there was a great deal of interest in the development of vaccine against anthrax. Nowadays we hear a lot about the use of chemical agents and things like that, so you know, I think that drives what the government is interested in.

RR: Coming into your office there were several layers of security that we had to go through. I imagine working with the materials that you work with, safety and security is a top priority. How much more so is it now than it used to be?

KB: Yeah so, fortunately the materials we work with aren’t really all that hazardous so I don’t want to give your audience the impression that we have lots of these agents here. We do have surrogates for some of these things that we can work with. These surrogates are not harmful at all. So, in fact we have– the organism I work on is called “bacillus anthraces.” It’s a cousin of the organism that’s used [in weapons] that’s very lethal, but it, you know it’s very safe to work with here. So we do have security measures in place. We are more interested in developing vaccines and antidotes to these various agents and so as we target different components of these biological weapons that we can isolate in a safe way and then develop countermeasures to those.

RR: What’s the ultimate goal of your work? If there is, for instance a biological attack in Omaha, is the goal to have vaccines ready within 24 hours of that biological attack? I mean what are we working towards?

KB: Yeah, that sort of depends. If we’re talking about anthrax, right now the U.S. Government is stockpiling anthrax vaccines. They do that currently with the existing vaccine. You know, in the event of an anthrax attack, the Government can then quickly vaccinate as many people as possible so that the hypothetical event would not spread and would not have a major impact on our population.

If you’re talking about something like sarin gas, we’re developing antidotes that a soldier, for example, could take in the field and if they detected they’d been exposed to sarin gas–a very lethal gas- they can take the antidote. They could be carrying around a syringe that they could hydrate, they just add water to the antidote, and then jab that hypodermic needle into their thigh and that will offer protection against the exposure.

RR: It’s very interesting work you’re doing, Dr. Bayles. We thank you for it, as a society, because we know maybe someday it be very important for us to have. Good luck [Monday night] and we thank you for your time.

KB: Great. Thank you for having me.

Reporter’s Notes:

Kenneth Bayles will begin speaking at the Slowdown Bar in Downtown Omaha at 6:30 pm. He’s speaking as part of this week’s Science Café, sponsored by UNMC. Science Cafés involve a face-to-face conversation with a scientist about current science topics. They are open to everyone (21 and older) and take place in casual settings like pubs and coffeehouses. Each meeting is organized around an interesting topic of conversation. A scientist gives a brief presentation followed by a question and answer period.


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