Research to Address Real-World Threats and Emergencies
Associate Professor Elizabeth Ambrose Amin grew up in a family of military professionals and civil servants.So, it was natural that after defending her dissertation to earn her doctorate in chemistry one month after 9/11, she decided to dedicate her career to discovering ways to mitigate biological and chemical warfare threats.
“That was really a turning point for me,” said Amin. “The more I looked into these threats, the more I realized a sense of urgency in trying to find ways to mitigate them.”
Today, Amin’s NIH/NIAID-funded research program focuses on designing countermeasures to biological and chemical warfare agents, specifically Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of anthrax), the ricin toxin, and organophosphate nerve gases such as sarin, soman and the nerve agent VX.
“It’s absolutely critical that we try to stay a step ahead of our adversaries,” said Amin. “Often, we approach this work as if we’re fighting the last battle, and chances are that the next terror attack will be something completely different. Those who wish to do us harm are always seeking new ways to circumvent widely known security measures."
Bridging the fields of biochemistry and microbiology with computational sciences, Amin and her researchers are working on several projects, including designing small-molecule anthrax toxin lethal factor inhibitors for use as emergency therapeutics in a bioterror attack, identifying ricin toxin A inhibitors as counterterrorism measures, and engineering enzyme active sites to rapidly and effectively hydrolyze fast-acting nerve agents on the battlefield or in civilian terrorism scenarios.
“When anthrax spores enter a host, they germinate and start secreting large amounts of lethal exotoxin,” said Amin. “The vegetative bacteria are susceptible to antibiotics, but the toxin itself is not, and the initial symptoms of infection are often non-specific. That’s what makes anthrax so dangerous. Once a definitive diagnosis is made, the toxin may already have reached lethal levels; hence the need for fast-acting antitoxin countermeasures.”
Amin is grateful to be at a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) research university, which allows her to safely focus on her anti-anthrax research. With a lifelong interest in electronics, Amin is certified in ham radio emergency operations.
“My amateur radio emergency work connects closely to my interests in science and technology for homeland security,” said Amin.
Building and repairing both modern and vintage radios is a good fit for Amin’s work in emergency operations and her love of military history.
“Oftentimes in an emergency, cell towers go down and regular phone lines may not work,” said Amin. “When all else fails, ham radio is always there.”
Amin warns that civilian and military populations remain vulnerable to a bioterrorism attack.