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The Silicon Valley of biodefense: K-State cements status at the forefront of biodefense


By Jennifer Tidball and Beth Bohn

What Silicon Valley is to technology, Kansas State University is to biodefense.

That’s how a member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has described the university and its national leadership in animal health, biosciences and food safety research. The panel visited K-State’s Manhattan campus in late January 2017 for a series of discussions titled “Agrodefense: Challenges and Solutions.” Panel members and staff learned about better ways — many taking place at K-State — to protect the country’s food supply and fight bioterrorism. 

“K-State has really become the Silicon Valley for biodefense,” said Tom Daschle, former majority leader of the U.S. Senate and panel member. “Its Biosecurity Research Institute, links to the Kansas Intelligence Fusion Center and the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility are all illustrative of the extraordinary effort that is now underway in Manhattan. It’s an amazing demonstration of innovation, of collaboration and of engagement.”

The panel — chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge — recommends changes to U.S. national policy and law to strengthen biodefense. The panel intends to produce a report to share with the country’s new administration, Congress and the public by the end of the year.

“One of the centerpieces of our report is the recommendation to try and coordinate information-sharing efforts among the different and often disparate parts of state and local governments that address biothreats,” said the Honorable Kenneth Wainstein, panel member and former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Nowhere is that as important, and the need as marked, as in the agriculture area.”

During the panel’s time at K-State, university researchers discussed their work on emerging diseases — Zika virus, West Nile virus, avian influenza and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, known as PEDv — as well as efforts to fight biological terrorism, such as the anthrax events of 2001, which affected Daschle. They also discussed pursuing biodefense through partnerships with government, industry and other universities.

“We want to be a good partner in the effort to protect our nation’s food supply, both plant and animal,” said Kansas State University President Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. “We have expertise and facilities here that enable us to do this.”  

On the front line of biodefense

Kansas State University has a long history in biodefense — a history that accelerated in 1999 with the publication of “Homeland Defense Food Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness Program.” The 100-page document — informally called “The Big Purple Book” — outlined the university’s research programs in three major infectious disease components: plant pathology, animal health and food processing.

As the “Silicon Valley for biodefense,” the university maintains numerous facilities, research collaborations and academic programs devoted to agrodefense and biodefense. Here are just a few:

• The Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, at Pat Roberts Hall is a biosafety level-3 facility that addresses threats to plant, animal, and human health and food contamination through infectious disease and pathogen research. The institute is jump-starting research on National Bio and Agro-defense facility diseases, including Japanese encephalitis virus, Rift Valley fever, classical swine fever and African swine fever.

• The College of Veterinary Medicine has research strengths in animal health infectious diseases, comparative biomedical science and food safety and security.

• The College of Agriculture conducts research in agricultural and horticultural crops, livestock, natural resources and the environment.

• The National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, or NABC, unites biosecurity researchers with federal, state and local agencies to provide a response to emerging agricultural threats.

• The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, or CEEZAD, develops countermeasures for emerging high-priority animal diseases that can spread to humans. It’s based in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

• The Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, or FARAD, hosted by the College of Veterinary Medicine, is a risk-management program that provides science-based expertise to help mitigate unsafe chemical residues, such as from drugs, pesticides and biotoxins, that might be found in products derived from food animals.

• The K-State Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, part of the Great Plains Diagnostic Network, provides information on disease identification and management, and processes more than 1,000 samples from Kansas each year. The samples help K-State keep a pulse on what plant diseases are active around the state. 

• The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, or NBAF, will be a biosafety level-4 laboratory and the country’s foremost animal disease research facility. It is under construction adjacent to the Manhattan campus and will replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

• The Kansas Department of Agriculture, the first state department of agriculture in the nation, is devoted to the total support of agriculture in Kansas. Among the department’s priority objectives is developing strategic partnerships with K-State, as well as and other potential partners, to better serve Kansans and the agriculture industry. Access to the university’s main campus was one of the reasons the agency relocated its main offices to Manhattan.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Grain and Animal Health Research is home to several research units in Manhattan: the Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit, the Grain Quality and Structure Research Unit and the Hard Winter Wheat and Genetics Research Unit.

In the lab

Kansas State University is home to a wide variety of biodefense-related research funded by government agencies and industry. Here’s a look at some of these projects:

• At the Biosecurity Research Institute, researchers have studied mosquitoes to understand how they become infected with Zika virus. University scientists were part of a multi-institutional team that recently developed a possible new Zika virus vaccine. They also are investigating an emerging type of Japanese encephalitis virus and conducting the first U.S. studies since the 1940s. Find out more about this work on pages 18-23.

• Researchers are taking mobile applications to the field to improve food security and economic welfare through a $1.5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation Basic Research to Enable Agriculture Development, or BREAD, Program. The team is creating mobile phone and tablet applications that enable breeders and scientists around the world to develop better plant varieties.

•The Center of Excellence for Emerging Zoonotic and Animal Diseases, or CEEZAD, is using a $2.3 million federal grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the U.S. Department of Defense, through a collaboration with the commercial firm NewLink Genetics, to study a newly developed livestock vaccine that could protect humans from the Ebola Zaire virus. A $100,000 matching contribution from the state of Kansas’ National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, or NBAF, Transition Funds brings the total project funding to $2.4 million.

• The Center of Excellence for Vector Borne-Diseases received $200,000 from the state of Kansas through its NBAF Transition Funds to study the tick-transmitted pathogen Ehrlichia ruminantium. It causes heartwater, which is deadly to cattle, sheep and goats. The researchers are working on a vaccine against the disease.

• Wheat blast fungal disease research, led by Barbara Valent, university distinguished professor of plant pathology, and Jim Stack, professor of plant pathology, continues at K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute. The 2016 discovery of wheat blast in Bangladesh, the first time the fungus has occurred outside of South America, emphasizes this pathogen’s threat to crop production.

• Weiping Zhang, professor of microbiology, is working on vaccines for E. coli diarrhea using a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

• The National Agricultural Biosecurity Center is developing a database to help agricultural emergency management coordinators combat animal disease outbreaks and other emergencies. The database is called ICAAR, which stands for Identifying Corrective Actions from Agricultural Response. The project is supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs Food, Agriculture and Veterinary Defense Branch through the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota.

• Five grants from the Swine Health Information Center are helping the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory develop reliable swine pathogen diagnostic tests.

•T.G. Nagaraja, university distinguished professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, and Raghavendra Amachawadi, assistant professor of clinical sciences, are studying if copper and zinc, two common minerals, as animal feed additives can provide disease protection to animals. Learn more about this work and other ways K-State is combating antimicrobial resistance on pages 24-27.

• Barbara Drolet, who is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit and K-State as an adjunct faculty member in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, is leading research on the disease threat of exotic Bluetongue virus serotype 8 from Northern Europe to sheep breeds of North America.

• Jürgen Richt and his CEEZAD team are developing a vaccine for African swine fever virus in collaboration with researchers at Iowa State University and Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa in Madrid, Spain. Richt is a regents distinguished professor of veterinary medicine and a Kansas Bioscience Authority eminent scholar.

• Jishu Shi, professor of anatomy and physiology, is developing a novel vaccine, KNB-E2, that differentiates pigs infected with classical swine fever virus from those that are vaccinated with KNB-E2.

• Scott McVey, an adjunct faculty member in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, and the USDA’s Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit are studying mosquito-transmitted flaviviruses that threaten both human and livestock populations in North America.

• Steven Eckels, professor of mechanical engineering, and Chris Sorensen, Cortelyou-Rust distinguished professor of physics, are improving the science and engineering systems for biosecurity buildings like K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute. The team has been studying the science of detecting micron-sized holes in the HEPA filtration systems and has been documenting the accuracy of state-of-the-art autoscan systems for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility. 

Read the rest of Seek and see the PDF version of this story from New Prairie Press.

What people are saying about K-State and biodefense 


“Collaboration requires a convener. Collaboration requires leadership. I believe that K-State is in a very good position to be that convener, to be that leader and to
create opportunities for better dialogue and engagement with others as we consider the national challenges we face. That’s going to take a real effort and I think K-State is well-positioned to do just that.”

Tom Daschle, former majority leader of the U.S. Senate


“As agriculture is elevated in terms of recognition and importance, it will be important for K-State to play a key role in giving us the kind of direction and public policy approach that is necessary to get the job done right.”

Tom Daschle, former majority leader of the U.S. Senate


“Kansas is agriculture; agriculture is Kansas. Kansans have proven themselves in leading and preventing potential outbreaks.”

Physician and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of Kansas


“Zoonotic diseases are going to require physicians, veterinarians and researchers to work together. I see that my role is to push these people together. I see incredible opportunity with NBAF to work with those people and further the collaboration.”

Physician and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of Kansas


“Preventing an attack is going to be knowledge-based. We need to know everything possible about the pathogens and the potential perpetrators. Know the agent. Know the agencies that are involved. The type of research, education and training conducted at the Biosecurity Research Institute is critical to gain that sort of knowledge.”

Stephen Higgs, Kansas State University associate vice president for research and director of the Biosecurity Research Institute


“We cannot simply discuss One Health anymore, but we must embrace it. We need surveillance systems that can share information from the animal sector to the human health sector. We need surveillance systems that are not agent or disease based, but are more broadly syndromic based so that we have early detection for these emerging diseases.”

Tammy Beckham, dean of Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine