Can biowarfare agents be defeated with light?


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Abstract

Biological warfare and bioterrorism is an unpleasant fact of 21st century life. Highly infectious and profoundly virulent diseases may be caused in combat personnel or in civilian populations by the appropriate dissemination of viruses, bacteria, spores, fungi or toxins. Dissemination may be airborne, waterborne, or by contamination of food or surfaces. Countermeasures may be directed toward destroying or neutralizing the agents outside the body before infection has taken place, by destroying the agents once they have entered the body before the disease has fully developed, or by immunizing susceptible populations against the effects. A range of light-based technologies may have a role to play in biodefense countermeasures. Germicidal UV (UVC) is exceptionally active in destroying a wide range of viruses and microbial cells, and recent data suggests that UVC has high selectivity over host mammalian cells and tissues. Two UVA mediated approaches may also have roles to play; one where UVA is combined with titanium dioxide nanoparticles in a process called photocatalysis, and a second where UVA is combined with psoralens (PUVA) to produce “killed but metabolically active” microbial cells that may be particularly suitable for vaccines. Many microbial cells are surprisingly sensitive to blue light alone, and blue light can effectively destroy bacteria, fungi, and Bacillus spores and can treat wound infections. The combination of photosensitizing dyes such as porphyrins or phenothiaziniums and red light is called photodynamic therapy (PDT) or photoinactivation, and this approach cannot only kill bacteria, spores, and fungi, but also inactivate viruses and toxins. Many reports have highlighted the ability of PDT to treat infections and stimulate the host immune system. Finally pulsed (femtosecond) high power lasers have been used to inactivate pathogens with some degree of selectivity. We have pointed to some of the ways light-based technology may be used to defeat biological warfare in the future.

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