NN Germ-Killing Research May Soon Target Anthrax:

Process now kills bacteria on contact

The national anthrax scare could boost interest in a Peninsula researcher's process that creates germ-killing surfaces that can kill bacteria once it makes contact with surfaces.

Michael Kelley, a professor at the College of William and Mary's Applied Science Department at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has developed a way to use the lab's Free-Electron Laser to bond chemicals to the surface of materials.

The technique needs more testing before researchers are able to determine specific uses, but the work could create germ-free fabrics, for example.

The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology has contacted the National Institute of Health and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency about the process, and it expects to hear from the organizations in the next week about possibly further testing Kelley's technique. The Pentagon could also be contacted in coming days, said Rex Pelto, the center's director of federal research and development and business development.

The center is a private, non-profit organization, based in Herndon, that tries to help bring more attention to the state's technological potential, said Nancy Vorona, senior industry director for advancements in materials and electronics. The organization learned of Kelley's work about a week ago, she said.

The potential for Kelley's work has become more apparent in the past few weeks. "Obviously, now, after the unfortunate events ... there may be heightened awareness for these ideas," Pelto said. A string of anthrax cases have cropped up since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Three people have died, and five others have been diagnosed with inhaled anthrax. Six people have the less serious cutaneous form of the disease, which affects the skin.

The anthrax threat forced the Supreme Court to meet elsewhere Monday, while the Hart Senate Office Building stayed closed. The Hart building houses the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who received a letter containing anthrax three weeks ago. The House of Representatives had two office buildings closed throughout the weekend.

More than 10,000 people who may have been exposed to the bacteria have been urged to begin taking antibiotics as a precaution, and a New Jersey postal worker became the latest confirmed case of inhalation anthrax.

Kelley's process follows research into using an ultraviolet lamp on materials such as nylon. The lamp creates chemical reactions that produce protective layers and keep the materials germ-free.

Getting the laser process to work against anthrax would require first designing a chemical that could kill the germ, then bonding that chemical to surfaces.

The Free-Electron Laser process has yet to be tested against anthrax, Kelley said. Still, against the germs it has tackled, including E. coli, the technique has done well.

"What we're doing now is making the connections" with agencies to further test the process, Kelley said.

"Before all this happened, we'd never considered it."