Countering new and emerging threats requires new and creative approaches. At the Nonproliferation, Counterproliferation, and Disarmament Science Gordon Research Conference (GRC), researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) shared a range of research and scientific approaches for countering weapons of mass effect. A new addition to the GRC series, the conference focused on innovative approaches toward addressing chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats.
“The weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation community has been exploring transdisciplinary approaches to address CBRNE threats and how these can be applied to national security challenges. We are looking beyond just identification of agents to bring forensic considerations and creative ways to generate information that informs decision-making,” said Jonathan Forman, science and technology advisor.
Held July 9 – 14, in California, the conference brought together U.S.-based and international scientists to discuss new approaches for tackling challenges in CBRNE security and attribution, threat analysis, and nonproliferation. Presentations highlighted the latest in threat-science research, particularly in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence, detection and monitoring, data security, and risk assessment and modeling.
Threat-agnostic pathogen detection
Forman moderated a session, titled “Creative Approaches to WMD CBRNE Science,” where PNNL Biomedical Scientist Becky Hess presented “Threat-Agnostic Pathogen Detection Technologies.” While potentially billions of pathogens exist, humans only respond to infection in a limited number of ways. Hess’s presentation highlighted research into capabilities focused on recognizing whether a biological material is pathogenic, determining its activity and whether it is dangerous, and ultimately identifying the agent to provide immediately actionable information.
“There are scientific approaches that can inform how dangerous a pathogen is without having to identify it. We’re characterizing host response to assess how dangerous a pathogen might be rather than give it a name,” Hess said. “As the list of potential threats and pathogens grows, recognizing signs and signatures of chemical and biological activities can be beneficial to response and treatment.”
Human senses to counter chemical threats
While many tools and technologies exist for advanced chemical analysis to determine a threat, they may not be on hand at the time and point of need. In response to this challenge, PNNL Biomedical Scientist Raul Aranzazu presented the poster “Presumptive and Observable Indicators for Countering Chemical Threats,” co-authored with Joseph Urrabazo, Ashley Bradley, and Forman. The poster showcased how observational and presumptive indicators can be used to recognize the presence or exposure of chemicals, and how these might be combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to enable greater capabilities for countering these threats.
“When you encounter a chemical threat, you don’t bring your whole lab with you. Fortunately, there are several observables—things you can recognize—that can identify chemical presence and give you actionable information before you can receive confirmatory results from a lab-based analysis,” said Aranzazu.
For example, the observations of chemical exposure effects can provide indications that allow for actionable decision-making. “If you see particular kinds of symptoms and certain types of stress to the environment or damage to materials, you might recognize these as an indicator of a specific type or class of chemical agent and hazard,” Aranzazu said.
Of course, these observations can help inform and be greatly aided by technology, which is part of the team’s work as well.
“All of these approaches, like threat-agnostic detection and the power of observation, coupled with powerful computational analytics and data analysis, expand our toolbox of solutions for countering threats,” said Forman.
The overall GRC series presents an opportunity for staff to expand their networks and establish or deepen collaborations with other laboratories. For example, PNNL’s Kabrena Rodda and Janine Hutchison also attended this inaugural GRC event to advance collaborative relationships in support of PNNL's Chemical Threat Recognition and Response Emerging Directorate Objective. In the business session of the meeting, participants elected Forman to be a co-chair for running and organizing the next edition of the Nonproliferation, Counterproliferation, and Disarmament Science GRC, which will tentatively be held in 2025.