A Herndon company has been awarded a five-year, $16.9 million federal contract to build a database that will contain information on six dangerous pathogens that could be used as bioterrorism weapons or pose serious health hazards.
Northrop Grumman IT will create the database for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The database will be used primarily by scientific researchers.
Since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, there has been a spike in public awareness of bioterrorism threats, including "dirty bombs" and the introduction of fatal diseases or bacteria into public drinking water supplies or air supply systems at large public gathering spots such as shopping malls.
Two of the six disease-causing organisms included in the database -- tuberculosis and influenza -- are well known. The others are not as prominent, though two of them recently received media attention. One, the Entamoeba histolytica parasite, was thought to be responsible for knocking New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi out of the lineup for weeks. The other, Ricinus communis, which comes from castor bean plants, was discovered last month in jars of Gerber's banana yogurt dessert in Irvine, Calif. The other two pathogens are Giardia lamblia and microsporidia parasites.
"The primary users on these kind of systems are scientific researchers," said Kevin Biersack, bioinformatics program manager for Northrop Grumman IT. "It will be primarily used in academia by scientists studying these microorganisms. It will allow them to go to one centralized database on the Internet so they can view data and compare what they are doing to what people have done in the past."
To bid on the contract, Biersack said, the federal government required that each bidder include at least five pathogens in their project. He said that there are three major types of microorganisms -- bacteria, viruses and parasites -- and that he wanted to include at least one from each group.
"We picked pathogens that not only posed a biodefense threat, but a public health threat as well," Biersack said.
While information on all six pathogens is currently available to researchers and the government, Biersack said, it is important to have a centralized database that can be accessed quickly and easily.
"Bioinformatics is all about the goal of blending health and science with information technology, to leverage information technology as a knowledge resource for people in the scientific research community to help them do their research better," Biersack said. "And we all know what happens when they do research better: They can draw conclusions that lead to more forward-thinking conclusions."
He said the database will be designed so that other pathogens can be added in the future. About 17 people will work on the project. He said Northrop Grumman IT has three partners in the project: the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Vecna Technologies of College Park and AMAR International Inc. of Fairfax.