Bioterrorism: Sniffing out threats from unseen enemy

If anthrax, bubonic plague or other biological-warfare agents were unleashed by terrorists, the materials could be sampled and detected within minutes because of scientific work being done in the Northwest.

One of the leading companies in the field is Kennewick-based MesoSystems Technology, which makes devices for fire and rescue departments that can sample air and detect deadly biological and chemical agents within minutes.

Scientists at Richland-based InnovaTek are under pressure to quickly produce a similar device for the military. Both companies were spun out of research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. The national lab, funded by the Department of Energy, has branched into fields other than Hanford-related atomic science; its interest in combating bioterrorism emerged during the Gulf War.

By 1997, the research had advanced enough to be spun out into private companies. The business models for MesoSystems and InnovaTek were doubted when they started, but the terrorist attacks have changed that overnight. Sherry Liikala, marketing director for MesoSystems, said its annual sales projection has gone from $5 million to $150 million since Sept. 11. InnovaTek, a 12-person company, has added a night shift to try to keep up with orders.

"Unfortunately, events generate a lot of interest in our work," Liikala said. "The fire departments we talk to say now that there's been an event, they have to make sure they're prepared for potential bioterrorism."

Other area companies are working on similar devices. Redmond-based Micronics makes lab chips for detection machines.

In Woodinville, Research International, a 25-employee company, makes a rugged detection system for military special forces, called the Raptor.

Research International chief executive Elric Saaski said the device costs $45,000, weighs about 12 pounds and is designed to take pounding from hours in a military Humvee. Like many other devices, it converts air samples into a liquid form, which then is tested for toxins, viruses and bacteria.

There are daunting technical problems in designing sampling systems. They need to effectively filter out pollens, dusts and bugs that could throw off test results. Placement of sampling machines is also problematic.

InnovaTek chief executive Patricia Irving said some of those problems are being ironed out. If so, and the systems detect a biological threat early, germ-killing agents could be spread in time to save many lives, she said.

At Hollister-Stier Laboratories in Spokane, a subcontract with the U.S. military has workers under tight security bottling anthrax vaccine into injection vials.

At Seattle-based Corixa, scientists are experimenting with drugs that years from now could stimulate the body's immune system in the upper airways to fight off breathable infectious agents.

At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, scientists are teaching Border Patrol, FBI and other federal officials who need to learn how to recognize and contain a biological threat.

"There is definitely a lot of work going on, and it has been for a while," said InnovaTek's Irving. "The vulnerabilities were identified in the Gulf War, but it's very difficult. How do you know something's going on in real time with something that's invisible? That's what we're working on."

Luke Timmerman can be reached at 206-515-5644 or