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NSRI to Support Defense Research on Emerging Cyberbiosecurity Concerns

Public Health Cybersecurity

The National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska recently received a contract from the Department of Defense (DoD) to further research in cyberbiosecurity, an emerging field in biomanufacturing.

The NSRI is one of 13 established University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) across the nation, delivering relevant and timely research solutions directly impacting DoD operations and national security.

The contract requests a team of research scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), Colorado State University (CSU), and Virginia Tech, overseen by the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), to conduct ‘cyberbiosecurity’ research, a new discipline focusing on the vulnerabilities to and security of critical life science information.

“Through this effort, the NSRI is playing a key role in connecting these research opportunities to the researchers at UNL, Virginia Tech and CSU with DoD agencies.  As a result of the NSRI contract, a pathway is being produced with protective and preventive solutions for mitigating vulnerabilities in our nation’s critical infrastructure,” said NSRI Executive Director, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Hinson.

“Our project will establish and develop the foundations of cyberbiosecurity as a new specialty at the interface between biosecurity and cybersecurity,” said project principal investigator Randall Murch, research lead, National Capital Region and professor of practice at Virginia Tech. “Our work could gain the attention and involvement from a broad community of interest to design and implement technical and non-technical measures to protect and secure critical life science information that could be misappropriated or misused.”

The Biological Process Development Facility (BPDF) at UNL will serve as the centerpiece facility for the project.  The BPDF offers biopharmaceutical process development designed for successful technology transfer from the bench to large-scale manufacturing.  ‘Bioproduction’ relies on chemical engineering infrastructure to design, test and produce biopharmaceuticals of critical value to human and animal health.

Since its inception in 1998, processes for over 50 products including vaccines, other biotherapeutics, chemokines, and agricultural/industrial enzymes have been developed at UNL’s BPDF.

Wally Buchholz, director of the BPDF and research professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at UNL states that “this project will identify all critical information that is essential to a bioproduction 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 the specific methods that could be used.”

Buchholz continued, “the biosecurity and biodefense fields are continually evolving.  The security of biological data that is being produced to improve public health and medicine against emerging, re-emerging infectious and/or chronic diseases is often at the heart of discussions in the life sciences field.”

The same knowledge can be used for bioterrorism purposes, such as mutating or altering biological agents to cause disease, making them resistant to current medicines or increasing their ability to be spread into the environment.  Critical data 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.  “Our aim is to provide specific recommendations to the DoD for advancing security in biodefense and biosecurity,” said Buchholz.

Complementing UNL’s BPDF and CSU’s BioMARC, Virginia Tech brings extensive expertise from both the National Capital Region and Blacksburg campus in complex systems analysis, biosecurity, forensics, operational context and U.S. Government requirements and cyber-physical systems.

Virginia Tech has active research programs in bioprocess and biomanufacturing targeting biopharmaceuticals, biofuels, bioenergy, and biomaterials, which meet critical national and global needs. Faculty also conduct research in complex systems analysis and provide subject matter expertise for health security, biodefense, and biosecurity priorities of the Department of Defense and other departments and agencies.

CSU’s Jean Peccoud, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Abell Endowed Chair in Synthetic Biology, is part of the multi-institutional team which has been newly commissioned to begin to analyze the security of the nation’s biomanufacturing infrastructure.  “If every computer system is theoretically vulnerable to cyberattacks, how might these vulnerabilities impact the safety, delays, and production of biomanufacturing processes?”  Peccoud said. “We need to ensure the integrity of the flow of physical material and the flow of data associated with biomanufacturing processes.”

CSU is also an integral part of the national biodefense system.  BioMARC, the university’s high-containment biomanufacturing unit develops, manufactures and tests vaccines for the DoD and other government agencies.


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