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Virginia Tech leads partnership to conduct research on ‘cyberbiosecurity’ for the Department of Defense

December 13, 2016

Research team sitting at conference table at University of Nebraska
At a research meeting in Nebraska are (left to right), Joseph Ernst, Jeff Briggs, Ahmed Abdelhadi, Wally Buchholz, and Randall Murch. Not pictured: Jean Peccoud. NSRI/UNL photo by Karl Vogel

Virginia Tech is collaborating with the University of Nebraska and Colorado State University on a $750,000 Department of Defense contract to initiate research in “cyberbiosecurity,” a new crosscutting discipline that leverages systems biology, chemical engineering, cyber-physical systems analysis, and biosecurity. 

“This research will establish and develop the foundations of cyberbiosecurity as a new specialty at the interface between biosecurity and cybersecurity,” said Randall Murch, research leader for Biosecurity and Forensics, Virginia Tech National Capital Region Research Development Team, and the project’s principal investigator.

“For the first time in a defined construct, we will begin to tackle the security of ‘life science big data’ by conducting a structured analysis of a complex bioproduction facility within the nation’s biomanufacturing infrastructure,” he said.

Murch explained that biomanufacturing relies on systems biology and chemical engineering infrastructure to design, test, and produce biopharmaceuticals of critical value to human and animal health. Some biopharmaceuticals generated in such facilities are critical not only for public health and military force health protection, but for national resilience in the face of infectious disease outbreaks and bioterrorism, as well.

“Critical data on medical countermeasures can be stolen and exploited by other parties for their own gain, such as theft of intellectual property for financial benefit or competitive advantage to include industrial espionage and sabotage,” Murch continued.

For example, he said, data can be used to mutate or alter biological agents to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or increase their ability to be spread into and resist the environment.

“Our work could launch a broad community of interest to design and implement technical and nontechnical measures to protect and secure critical life sciences information that could be misappropriated or misused,” Murch said.

The National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska is working with the U.S. Strategic Command and the performer team to meet contractual requirements and manage administrative and financial aspects of the project.

This institute is one of 13 University Affiliated Research Centers across the nation that deliver relevant and timely research solutions directly impacting Department of Defense operations and national security. The University of Nebraska is providing its Biological Process Development Facility as a testbed crucial to the research and its associated experts.

“The biosecurity and biodefense fields are continually evolving,” said Wally Buchholz, director of the Biological Process Development Facility and research professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, who is leading the team at the University of Nebraska.

“We will identify all critical information that is essential to a biomanufacturing facility’s successful operation and outcome. The results will help us to understand the tolerances and vulnerabilities that can be exploited for various nefarious purposes and specific methods that could be used,” Buchholz said. “Our aim is to provide specific recommendations to the DoD for advancing security in biodefense and biosecurity.”

Virginia Tech is drawing members of its research team from faculty and staff from the National Capital Region and Blacksburg whose combined expertise spans the areas of complex systems analysis, biosecurity, operational context, forensic science, and cyber-physical systems.

They include Sanjay Raman, associate vice president of the National Capital Region, director of the Research Development Team, and professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Ahmed Abdelhadi and Joseph Ernst, research assistant professors at the Hume Center.

Jean Peccoud, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Abel Endowed Chair in Synthetic Biology at Colorado State University, will bring relevant expertise from several life science disciplines and biosecurity to the multi-institutional research team. Murch, Peccoud, and Raman were the originators of the cyberbiosecurity concept; Peccoud was a professor at Virginia Tech when the concept was being created.

“In addition to conceptualizing and developing the research project, Virginia Tech also explored and obtained funding and sponsorship opportunities,” said Murch. “We are pleased to lead this multidisciplinary team effort to help develop defenses against the emerging cyberbiosecurity challenge.”

 

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