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Gray Matter Podcast | Conversation with Dr. Corrie Carnes and Evan Durnal: Detection of Chemical, Biological, and Explosive Threats



MRIGlobal’s Gray Matter podcast digs in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges, and why this work matters in your life.

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Transcript — Conversation with Dr. Corrie Carnes and Evan Durnal: Detection of Chemical,  Biological, and Explosive Threats

00;00;00;26 – 00;00;19;19 — Dean Gray 

I’m Dean Gray, chief operating officer at MRIGlobal. And this is Gray Matter, the podcast, where we dig in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges and why this work matters in your life. 

00;00;19;19 – 00;01;46;06 — Dean Gray 

Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Gray Matter. If you have listened to the past few episodes, you will recall that we covered topics including diagnostics in the pandemic, our mobile laboratory deployments to West Africa and Ebola virus eradication efforts, infectious disease containment systems. And then most recently, when we discussed the science of innovation, and that’s a topic that we’re going to come back to in a future episode. So stay tuned for that one. But today we are going to talk about some other specialized research that we do at MRIGlobal that includes drugs of abuse and chemical threats. Now, primarily, we’ll focus our discussion on synthetic opioids like the fentanyl derivatives and some of the cutting edge of detection systems that we evaluate for these materials. We’ll also talk about some of the research we do to help safeguard our military and first responders against other chemical threats. So, there’s a lot to go over today. This is a this is a great topic. Now with me today are two colleagues and subject matter experts in this area. We have Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe and Evan, Durnal and Corrie, if you don’t mind, would you please introduce yourself? 

00;01;46;15 – 00;03;10;18 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Um sure. Thanks, Dean. So I’m Corrie Carnes-Lowe. I’m a program manager at MRIGlobal. I’ve been here 19, almost 20 years. I’ve got a bachelor’s in chemistry. I’ve got a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. I studied for my Ph.D. I studied how reactivity changes with crystallized particle size, with nanomaterials. The first job I had, I worked for a company where we made chem-Warfare Decon Solutions based on nanomaterials. In that job, we worked with what was Midwest Research Institute, and they did a lot of our chem warfare testing with a lot of that work. I got to know that a lot of the work that MRI did was a bit more interesting than the work that I was currently doing with that job. So, So I sent my resume in and that’s how I came to what was MRI and MRI global and so really right when I started that MRI, some of the first couple contracts I worked with were right in there with working and customizing field portable equipment. So with this topic, we have a lot of history, a lot of experience. 

00;03;10;20 – 00;03;15;12 — Dean Gray 

Excellent, excellent. Evan Durnal would you introduce yourself, please? 

00;03;15;20 – 00;04;06;21 — Evan Durnal 

Sure. Thanks again, Dean, for for having us here today. My name’s Evan Durnal I’ve a Bachelors in Molecular Biology, Masters in Criminal Justice. This is going into my 18th year, so I’m not quite as long in the tooth, I guess, as Corrie is. But I’m getting there. MRI was actually my first job out of school, I was, I had an opportunity to work on an environmental sampling program that MRI had going on at the time, and as an intern, actually back in 2005 and kind of got me hooked on on chem agents and field portable detection and protecting our first responders and military folks and that kind of kind of the mission really hooked me right away.  And I’ve been here ever since. I’m now a program manager for both commercial customers and as well as for some of our large government customers as well. 

00;04;06;28 – 00;05;03;10 — Dean Gray 

Yeah, it’s excellent. And I know that both of you in your history here, you’ve done a lot of work with different threat agents and we’ll get into some of those in a little bit. You’ve also worked with a lot of a a drugs, illicit drugs. And over the past, probably I don’t know, you guys can correct me if I’m wrong, but probably maybe the last five, six years or so, really, the fentanyl derivatives have been the ones of of a large focus with some of our customers for for all sorts of all sorts of reasons. And I kind of want to start there and throw out a it’s kind of a curve to start with the good what was fentanyl, why was it initially synthesized? What was it used for therapeutically? You know, what was the what was the intent with it? And then we’ll kind of lead into where is it now and and why we study it. Yeah, please. 

00;05;04;09 – 00;05;51;25 — Evan Durnal 

So I can hit on that a little bit. Fentanyl has been around since about 1959-1960, when Dr.  Janssen first first synthesized it. I believe it was originally designed to be for pain treatment in  cancer patients. Actually, as a alternative to would necessarily be safer alternative to morphine  was an alternative to morphine. And those medications that were available at the time. At that  point, just they rapidly figured out the the efficacy or the potency of of the material and it kind  of spread in terms of general pain management, that kind of thing. It’s been used for surgical  anesthesia. It’s probably more so now in terms of pill form or patch form for pain management,  for for chronic pain patients, that type of thing. 

00;05;52;00 – 00;06;04;24 — Dean Gray 

Mm hmm. Yeah. So some good intention, but I’d say so. Why is it so pervasive now in today’s  market and in the illicit drug trade? Corrie? 

00;06;05;06 – 00;07;06;13 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Well, I think I think anything that goes with pain management and I think we’ve seen this a lot with all of the pharmaceutical drugs that are out there, the hydrocodone and OxyContin, um, they make their way into illicit and with the fentanyls it’s, it’s so potent. And I think there’s a lot of manufacturers, especially foreign manufacturers, who are selling those and not only the fentanyl, but the analogs of fentanyl. And they’re making their way from foreign entities into the U.S. market. And they’re so potent that they can buy either fentanyl or the analogs of fentanyl and they can mix them into fillers that are ambiguous. And if you can buy a, you know, a kilogram or a couple pound bag of a fentanyl or a fentanyl analog, and you can mix it with something that’s ambiguous and you can make it look like a pharmaceutical drug. You’ve spent very little and you can sell the the pills at a a reasonable cost. And you’ve made a whole lot of money. 

00;07;06;21 – 00;07;38;10 — Evan Durnal 

Yeah, I think you really hit on that. You know, the bang for their buck there, whether it’s, you know, and it’s cheaper to manufacture than like if it’s like an illicit producer making heroin. It’s cheaper, actually, for them to manufacture fentanyl. I mean, they get more bang for their buck where like like Corrie said, you can make the same amount and then dilute it 100 times more than you would something else and sell it for the same price per pill per, you know, how are the delivery mechanism is? So just the financial aspect of it, especially on the illicit side is, is a real big driver. 

00;07;38;10 – 00;09;05;10 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. So there was a real breakthrough I guess that was a little bit earlier than I thought it was.  That’s interesting, Evan. I mean, that there was a real breakthrough in synthetic chemistry to be able to form some of these more complex molecules. And I was thinking for some reason it was it was later than it was then, than in the 1950s. But as you mention, I mean, coming up with something like heroin, which is derived from morphine, that requires going through entire growth cycles and then harvesting of the opium poppy and then the processing that’s associated with it. Whereas fentanyl and derivatives synthesize in a laboratory, you’ve got the possibility for dual use, one going towards more of a pharmaceutical trade and then the other going for, you know, kind of on the street and yeah, so what? So if we think about that, your background, both of you have such a it’s a really unique background in your understanding of detection systems, portable detection systems, handheld detection systems. I don’t know two other people who know more about this topic than you guys do. And I and I want to like focusing on that. And then with fentanyl, for instance, I mean, fentanyl has no smell, right? It’s got no it’s just a white powder. Like all sorts of any number of other things. So why does accurate rapid fentanyl detection matter? And, you know, who does it end up benefiting? 

00;09;06;10 – 00;09;56;04 — Evan Durnal 

I was glad you said white powder, because that’s in my notes I’ve jotted down before. This white powder was one thing that came to mind was like, why this does matter? Because it does fall into that category of just ubiquitous white powders, right? Dry, fluffy white powders. There’s countless white powders out there. Some of them are going to hurt you whatsoever. Some of them you’re going to have to mess with them for them to hurt you, some of them like fentanyl. If you’re a responder in a scene and you happen to inadvertently knock something over or aerosolized some of that dry powder, it’s not going to take very much for you to inhale before you’re going to start experiencing those physiological effects. You know, you’re going to start your slow breathing and that kind of thing. So it really matters to be able to identify it quickly because the effects are so immediate and can be so severe in terms of timelines. 

00;09;56;13 – 00;10;06;02 — Dean Gray 

Mm hmm. So any exposure, so even a small amount of fentanyl could have a significant impact on a first responder, right? 

00;10;06;19 – 00;10;38;10 — Evan Durnal 

Yeah, that’s true. And it like some other things, it really depends on how they’re potentially exposed. I think one of the common myths is that if a first responder happens to get some dry fentanyl powder on their skin, they’re going to immediately have a reaction. That’s not the case. fentanyl not just going to permeate through your skin quickly. I will say of note out there for any first responders listening, don’t use hand sanitizer or wash with any kind of alcohol because alcohols will actually increase that rate in which the fentanyl permeates through your skin. 

00;10;38;11 – 00;10;43;08 — Dean Gray 

Oh, it’ll soluble-ize it. And then you can absorb it faster. 

00;10;43;24 – 00;11;11;28 — Evan Durnal 

Exactly, so that’s one thing we always try to, you know, make sure folks know, don’t water’s fine, but don’t try to rinse off it with hand sanitizer or any other kind of alcohol, that kind of thing. But it’s really that inhalation exposure, right? I think most people kind of think of that as if I inhale something. It’s going to be a very quick reaction, so to speak. It’s going to get into your system very quickly, virtually the same as if you take something intravenously very similar timelines depending on on the compound. 

00;11;11;28 – 00;11;31;11 — Dean Gray 

Mm hmm. Let’s talk about detection a little bit. You know, let’s say you’re a first responder and you came across a white powder and you’re not sure what to do with it, what are some options, Corrie, for field detection and handheld detection and some some benefits that come from that in the recent years, some technology improvements? 

00;11;31;11 – 00;11;40;12 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah. So they there are several like color metric kids out there that will detect fentanyl and the  fentanyl analogs at a pretty low level. 

00;11;40;14 – 00;11;43;02 — Dean Gray 

You have to dissolve the materials first to be able to get that? 

00;11;43;04 – 00;12;05;05 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Some you do, some you don’t, some there’s some that you wipe on to the dry materials and then it has a liquid in it that will read the detection. There’s some that are like the little pouches that you put the solid in. There are some that have liquids in them that you have to take and solubleize and but there are several of those out there that work pretty well. 

00;12;05;28 – 00;12;28;26 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

There’s also instrumentation like there’s FTIR and Raman spectroscopy and then there’s there’s even more complex instruments. There’s a gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, and that’ll give you a higher level of detection. So I mean, there’s a whole gamut of stuff that you can use to increase your your I guess your. 

00;12;30;03 – 00;12;31;09 — Evan Durnal 

Your confidence in. 

00;12;31;15 – 00;12;39;06 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

The confidence in what you’re seeing. Yeah. And your sensitivity and, and how, how much you can see in that field sample. 

00;12;39;06 – 00;12;46;15 — Dean Gray 

So FTIR versus Raman is one going to have a benefit over the other if you’ve got kind of a mixed sample that you’re that you’re looking at. 

00;12;46;23 – 00;13;45;25 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe

And there’s advantages and disadvantages to each one, but they’re both pretty compatible. So some samples are have stretches on them that are IR active and some have some stretches on them that are Raman active. So they both do take about 5 to 10% of a material to be detectable. So if you have a very low amount of say fentanyl in a cutting agent, you may not see it. If it’s below 5%. That is a disadvantage of both systems. Raman If you have something that’s highly colored, it may have so much fluorescence you may not get a good signal, but you can look through packaging. So with Raman you could look through a plastic bag or a glass vial, which is nice. You wouldn’t have to open the sample up. FTIR you will you do have to have the sample in direct contact. So there’s advantages and disadvantages of both systems. 

00;13;45;26 – 00;13;59;27 — Dean Gray 

I see with like handling the material and then if you’re going to get into the lower amounts in a mixture, for instance, then you recommend that that ends up being a sample that you really need to do you think, take back to a laboratory for gas chromatography or mass spectroscopy? 

00;14;00;08 – 00;14;10;25 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah, there are field portable GCMS systems that you can analyze in the field. But I mean, I don’t know if a lot of first responders would have them, but the other groups may. 

00;14;11;16 – 00;15;05;20 — Evan Durnal 

Gas (…) chromatography. So GCMS systems or LCMS systems also, which is the same, it just keeps the material in a liquid phase versus vaporizing into gas phase. Are going to be what you know, the crime labs and the DEA in those kinds of folks you use on the back end to get a gold standard confidence in yes, this is fentanyl or this is su-fentanyl or al-fentanyl and or car fentanyl. Those those techniques are going to, you know, nothing’s ever 100% confident but are going to get you to that 99 plus confidence level in the identification of what the actual threat material is. FTR and Raman will do that also, but at a higher level that Corrie mentioned the percentages you think of your common pill of of ibuprofen or something at home, you know, 200 milligram pill. It’s not the entire pill doesn’t weigh 200 milligrams and it’s all ibuprofen. That’s the majority of that is actually cutting agents or glucose, you know, at all, that kind of thing. 

00;15;05;20 – 00;15;06;05 — Dean Gray 

Formulation agents. 

00;15;06;08 – 00;15;38;05 — Evan Durnal 

Formulation, yeah. In the ingredients to just help the pill stay together. Right there’s only the 200 milligrams is a very small amount in that pill and that’s where those IR (…) systems can start to have trouble because they’re only going to analyze the very surface of that pill. Also, they’re not going to get down into the pill. You would have to crush it up to get an attempt at that. But also, 200 milligrams is usually going to be less than 10% of what the total material in that pill is. And so those those techniques may or may not be able to to identify it. 

00;15;38;26 – 00;15;47;14 — Dean Gray 

What’s one of the most prevalent then handheld detection systems that are being used right now for, say, for fentanyl detection out in the field?

00;15;47;14 – 00;16;33;03 — Evan Durnal 

I mean, I think they are a FTIR Raman a color metric. I mean, color a color metric just by the  the ease of use, the the price point, right color metric kits are extremely, extremely cheap. You can get up a box of ten kits for for 20 bucks. Right. So there’s not a law enforcement vehicle in the country that doesn’t have color metric kids in their trunk. So in those can go a little bit lower in terms of detection limits. So how sensitive they are to the material they can identify, you know, a match head or less of of material in any given sample then kind of stepping up a lot of of hasmat units will probably have IR and raman systems with them. It was probably the three most prevalent detection methodologies out there. 

00;16;33;03 – 00;16;51;19 — Dean Gray 

So yeah. Yeah. So have you seen some some real improvements in the technology, let’s say, over the past? I mean, you guys have been studying this for a long time, but say just pick a timeframe over the last like 5 to 6 years. For instance, in terms of portability or power source or what are some things that you’ve seen improvements in? 

00;16;52;02 – 00;17;13;23 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

I think size. Size is the biggest thing I’ve seen, especially with the IRN raman systems. I mean, IR went from really small benchtops to, I don’t know, three or four pound systems that you can really put in to make pockets raman, the same really from small benchtops to really handheld systems. 

00;17;13;28 – 00;17;24;18 — Evan Durnal 

Yeah. They’re not, they’re not down to cell phone size yet. They may or may not get there. You know, you’re talking about a brick regular, you know, red brick kind of size, um roughly. 

00;17;24;27 – 00;17;44;25 — Dean Gray 

Yeah, that’s good. That’s super portable, though, for this. You know, there are so many different. I are there are about I think at least maybe 500 different derivatives of fentanyl. Does the derivative matter? And are these going to be techniques that are going to be able to evaluate specific derivatives over other ones? 

00;17;45;10 – 00;18;03;02 — Evan Durnal 

You know, and that was going to be the other part of it. You know, technology gains in the last few years that that many times what duties the the on board software so the algorithms and the matching because all of these operate by obtaining a signature they take a measurement from your sample and they compare that measurement to a library. 

00;18;03;25 – 00;18;08;28 — Evan Durnal 

Think of it as just a regular X-Y graph on a screen, you know, squiggly lines on the screen. Right. 

00;18;08;28 – 00;18;14;07 — Dean Gray 

Meaning like a library means that you’ve got a comparison to a control sample somewhere along the line.

00;18;14;07 – 00;19;44;25 — Evan Durnal 

Yeah. So it’ll take. Okay I’m going to obviously does extremely quickly, you know it compares your sample to up to you know most handheld systems out between five and 12-15,000 entries in those. So it’s it’s, you know, one at a time compares it and it comes back results saying  yeah it does match very very closely to a library or not it’s the the kind of the computing I mean  it’s not really to the like the AIML kind of level, but some of those algorithms that that’s where  it’s becoming really key, especially for IRN raman to be able to distinguish between some of  the different derivatives, but also the fact that it costs a lot of money to build these libraries, to put these, which is what we do very regularly, because it is important to have true certified  reference materials in those libraries. But in some of these instances, when you’re talking about I think there’s like almost 2000 fentanyl analogs or yeah, maybe not all of the all of them have been realized yet, but up to theoretically 2000 plus analogs out there, it’s really not feasible to add all of those into a library all the time. So having software that can in some ways predict what those would look like or hone in on a specific portion of that molecule or something like that can become helpful. Obviously, when you’re predicting versus comparing to the real thing, you lose a little bit of confidence, right? But that’s the software. In addition to the kind of the typical size, size, weight power stuff is becoming more more important as the class grows. 

00;19;45;06 – 00;20;05;14 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. So almost I guess with the different derivatives, there are going to be some that are lumped into categories that might just have a higher toxicity than others. Right. So maybe that’s going to be the most important thing, at least initially to kind of hone in on is, is which ones are you dealing with that are going to be the most dangerous, you know, is that how it is or am I wrong on that Corrie? 

00;20;05;14 – 00;21;13;08 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Well, I think I think for a while I think the DEA was having trouble keeping track of them and keeping up with and with putting labels on them. So for a long time, foreign entities were just making a new analog because it got around the controlled substance regulations. They could sell a new analog. Well, that one’s now been controlled, so they’ll make a new analog and they could sell it and they could ship it to the US. Well, that one is now being controlled, so they’ll make a new analog. Now I can ship that to the US and that’s how a lot of these illicit drugs were getting here. And I want to say what maybe four or five years ago the DEA came out and they just said all fentanyl analogs are now schedule two controlled substances. So that’s all being covered now. But in that time frame, hundreds of analogs were made and they would just change a small portion of it. Well, now this one is not controlled. I can sell it. But I think in that time period a lot of analogs got made. And just in the synthesis of it, people make a new one. Well they act very similar, I mean, you change just one functional group and it acts pretty similar. So I don’t know if the toxicity of a lot of them have even been studied. 

00;21;13;16 – 00;21;22;03 — Dean Gray 

Oh, sure. Right. Yeah, right. In such a short amount of time with that many analogs. Yeah. Now, yeah, yeah. So massive studies. 

00;21;22;05 – 00;21;22;16 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 


00;21;23;13 – 00;21;38;26 — Dean Gray 

You know there are other so a lot of work that you’ve done on fentanyl. You’ve also done some work on other illicit materials. And you guys had a well, Corrie, did you and Evan both work on the what’s the date rape drug. I can’t remember that. 

00;21;39;02 – 00;22;06;24 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah. So we one of our customers was having a problem with some of their drinks and possibly foods being compromised. So they asked us to study some of the commercial kits that can be used to test drinks. So we tested about six kits and we did a little survey. We found all the commercial kits were out there and we tested about six of them for common drink. 

00;22;07;24 – 00;22;36;20 — Evan Durnal 

We identified, I think, well over unfortunately well over a dozen, I think drugs that can be used in in date rape or, you know, acquaintance rape kind of type events. If I remember right, we tested around six, six or eight of those. It’s a typical things that people hear, you know, the GHB or rohypnol those kinds of drugs that are, as you mentioned, somewhat similarly to fentanyl. You know, they don’t have any odor. There’s no color to them. There’s no taste to them. You know, those kind of type materials. 

00;22;36;28 – 00;22;48;28 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. By and large, did you find the consumer tests were effective then or. I’m not going to ask you to name any names on which ones you weren’t, I think. But but I know you guys wrote up these results as well for the customer in question. 

00;22;48;28 – 00;23;10;03 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah, we did. So we tested I think we tested six kits. Several of them kind of look like you’re pulling out a chemistry kit in the bar to to test your results. They’re all color metric. Well, I should say all but one of them were very color metric. Compare your colors and there was a yellow that turns to orange and that was did it turn from yellow to orange? 

00;23;10;11 – 00;23;27;04 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

There was a green that turns to blue, green or is it blue? And you think about, you know, we were in the lab under good lights taking photos of all these. But if you were in a real setting, if you were in a bar where the lights weren’t good, it would be really difficult. I mean, I thought it would be really difficult. 

00;23;27;04 – 00;24;00;23 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah, yeah. There was one that was really nice. It was kind of like a pregnancy test. It went from no lines to one line. If it was a good drink, I think, or bad drink and two lines if it was the other and it was like that was really nice. It was a clear indication, unfortunately, that one was just made for, I think, the benzodiazepines, which is like your Xanax, your Valium. But it worked really well, had great sensitivity levels. But some of the other ones were I mean, were hard to decipher color color wise. 

00;24;00;23 – 00;24;05;21 — Evan Durnal 

But yeah, and like you mentioned, that one worked very well for that specific class of  compounds. But like you said, there’s.

00;24;06;01 – 00;24;06;21 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Alot of others. 

00;24;06;21 – 00;24;14;17 — Evan Durnal 

A pretty good list of very long list of of those materials. And nothing we found worked well for the entire gamut across the board of of those types of drugs. 

00;24;15;09 – 00;24;52;02 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. It just seems like, you know, through your description, ideally you don’t want to be messing with the color tests at the bar in low light. And so then just, you know, hold on a second. Have, you know, if you’ve had two or three drinks and now you’re going to break out  your chemistry test and you’re going to I mean, but a quick almost like an old PH strip paper kind of a test disposable, inexpensive, you know, you can anticipate that something like that could even be printed at home and then be, you know, just just kept around with a really long  shelf life and no specialty materials needed. That’s that would just be the ideal diagnosis. 

00;24;52;02 – 00;25;21;03 — Evan Durnal 

There are a few folks out there doing like ideas of oh can we make a straw that’ll change  colors? Oh yeah. Create a decent ice cubes somehow. Or, you know, that one’s a little far fetched, I think. But things like straw or paper cup that change colors, those kinds of things. So they’re supposed to work on there. I think like anything else, it’s kind of working on that or they’re waiting on that initial funding impetus, not that it’s not not a really good cause to be working on the research to develop something. 

00;25;21;03 – 00;25;22;11 — Dean Gray 

Like that is Yeah. 

00;25;23;00 – 00;25;50;25 — Evan Durnal 

But I think they’re just kind of working on in technology in terms of color metric reactions is, is pretty simple and you know, hasn’t necessarily advanced, I guess I would say in the last few years because it’s pretty, pretty straightforward color metric stuff. So they’re kind of, you know, waiting on on new printing. And I don’t know if, you know, 3D printing in additive manufacturing, if that kind of technology might add add a new component to be able to create a product that has something in it to detect those or not. 

00;25;51;10 – 00;26;44;28 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. Yeah. You know, let’s talk just briefly about chemical sensors. And I’m curious, you know, ideally, you have you got a sample and you take a sample, will you be able to take it to a laboratory? You go through laboratory results and you get some sort of a definitive outcome that you can, you know, very sensitive as forensic value, all sorts of things. And then sensing is that real time opportunity with a smart device that can end up just quick detection and then letting the user know through a cell phone, smartphone, you know, an application, something like that. I’m curious what you’re finding in some of the newer technologies, the more interesting chemical sensors that are coming online or if there are any, or if you’re seeing any great developments in that area?

00;26;44;28 – 00;28;13;27 — Evan Durnal 

I think there is definitely a push to to go toward that. Like anything else, you know, the sooner you can get an answer, the better, the more real time continuous monitoring of a situation or  environment, the better. But there’s not the technology there for a lot of these materials that there are for for other things, like chem agents or other things that have been around longer, been a bit more I won’t say real threat, but been a threat longer. There’s certainly some challenges because all of these are going to be present at present as aerosols in an environment versus some other materials will be gases. So gases typically are a little bit easier to detect. Aerosols tend to come in all sorts of different little shapes and sizes and, you know, a speck of sentinel maybe sits on a get to touch who does particle and goes and then it’s separating out the dust from the from the Sentinel, those kinds of things. So there, there are companies and a lot of DOD agencies working on, you know, how to sensor, develop sensors on them for aerosol detection of some of these materials as well. But there’s not really anything out there that’s, I think, fully commercially ready to go at this point. There’s there’s some that do do aerosols of these materials in a limited manner and, you know, do fairly well and can do it. But nothing to the to the kind of proven maturity level of what the techniques that we were talking about before. 

00;28;14;02 – 00;28;30;25 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. Okay. And I ask you that because I know both of you are really on top of all new technologies that are coming out in this area. And that leads me into I want to make sure I ask you about the CBRNE Tech Index so you have an opportunity to explain that a little bit to your mind going into that? 

00;28;31;04 – 00;30;16;17 — Evan Durnal 

No, not at all. Right. So, yeah, so we founded CBRNE Tech Index through MRIGlobal, you know, just a kind of internal IRND so to speak, over seven years ago now. And all it is is an online database of detection equipment, PPE. So personal protective equipment for first responders, for government users, for anyone in the lab really kind of think of ourselves for allowed to use a comparison of kind of consumer reports of field portable detection equipment for chemical and biological materials. It’s not just illicit drugs. It’s not just kind of that typical into the world. WMD type detection equipment. When we say chemicals, it’s it’s TICs and TIMs, that’s toxic industrial materials, toxic industrial chemicals, things like chlorine, ammonia, right where we’re here in the heartland, we’ve got farmers with with thousands of gallons of tanks of ammonia. That can become a big issue if that if that tak ruptures or if somebody gets a hold of one of those and has nefarious intentions. Right. So the index allows people to go and look at the equipment that’s available to them out there, totally free for them to go on.  We’ve got a portal for first responders and government stuff that they can go in and get even additional information in terms of reports and how the how the the testing of those. In the end, they get the kind of validation of that equipment really works, not just somebody saying, yeah, I used that eight years ago and it worked really well. I’m sure it’s fine now. I’m really get into the nuts and bolts of it’s been proven by scientists and first responders and field other field users to to work they can go in and really compare. And there’s over 70 different fields on any given piece of equipment, whether it’s gloves, boots, respirators, full encapsulating suits or analytical equipment that we were talking about earlier. 

00;30;17;13 – 00;30;38;07 — Dean Gray 

And just so everybody’s up to speed on what we’re talking about. We’ve thrown out CBRNE, CBRNE, CBRNE, several times and this is the CBRNE Tech Index. But Chem, Bio, Rad, Nuke, Explosives. Yep. And just, you know, all caps, CBRNE and just some some of the acronyms that we end up talking about every day. So where where can people find it? 

00;30;38;21 – 00;31;11;29 — Evan Durnal 

The website is www dot CBRNE tech index dot com all right you can go on you don’t have to sign up for a membership or anything like that you can you can sign up and put some info in and get updates on new products or new products are uploaded. If a particular product you’re interested in is is updated or changed in some way, you can get notified on that or just, you know, give us a call or email and say, hey, I’m looking at buying this type of equipment or interested in this is or any further info you can do. Have you tested this? Do you know folks that have that kind of thing? 

00;31;12;10 – 00;31;48;08 — Dean Gray 

That’s good. It’s a great resource because also we’re completely objective. We don’t represent a product. We only represent the science and the results, and that’s it. And that’s one of the benefits of being this objective third party, not for profit, you know, Research Institute. All right. So, you know, beyond licit or illicit drugs, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the other chemical threats that we work with in our research. And Corrie, why don’t you go into that in a little bit more of detail of some some common areas of research for us as well related to it. 

00;31;49;13 – 00;32;26;20 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

So let’s see, we’ve done a lot of test and evaluation of our equipment with explosives. We do a lot of work with chemical warfare agents and even the side of chemicals. We do a lot of test and evaluation of portable biosystems. So we test out portable PCR’s HHA’s that work with bio select agents. So that’s like the ricin and then the anthrax and that type of stuff. So that engages a lot of the life sciences groups around the institutes. 

00;32;26;20 – 00;32;27;26 — Dean Gray 

What are HHA’s? 

00;32;27;26 – 00;32;31;05 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Oh, handheld assays. So that’s kind of like a pregnancy test. 

00;32;31;14 – 00;32;31;25 — Dean Gray 


00;32;31;26 – 00;32;39;23 — Evan Durnal 

A lot of the the home COVID test kits now are very similar to to the our HHAs is are very similar to that technology. 

00;32;39;28 – 00;33;03;22 — Dean Gray 

Mm hmm. Yeah. So this is a good opportunity then, across just the physical sciences, but the threat detection area and the research that we do is very collaborative. You can see how it kind of reaches into life sciences and engineering as well. Are there any say some? Oh, I’d say in general, some project highlights that you can think of that would discuss those collaborations a little bit more.

00;33;05;05 – 00;34;47;02 — Evan Durnal 

I think in terms of engineering, big benefit of having, you know, our staff you know, mechanical, electrical software, you know, all those, all those folks there in terms engineers is, is, like we said, there’s still a lot of these techniques or threats that don’t have a great technological solution to to to capturing them. So collecting a sample to then analyze as well as the actual device that’s going to analyze the sample itself. So we have had programs where our engineers are coming up with custom front end. So a pump that’s going to suck air into an inlet that’s going to capture a certain size aerosol or a certain size particle and get rid of all the other stuff.  That’s that’s not of interest. How do you design that? You know, do the modeling on that upfront, design that piece of equipment to then help the back-end analytics, the FTIRN Raman and GCMS that we’ve been talking about. Engineers do a lot of that kind of system design as well as when we’ve been talking about this field portable stuff, you know, the hardening, the rugged ization of those, of those, because you can’t just take something that could be the greatest technology in the world. But if you put it in the trunk and drive it down the street a couple blocks, you got 15 different pieces you’re never going to get put back together. So our engineers have done a fair amount of work on on hand portable stuff or more person portable.  So maybe not, you know, brick size, but, you know, suitcase boombox sized for those listening that lived through the eighties, I guess that kind of size. How do you ruggedized that so that it can grow out of the field and you can you don’t have to have a big, you know, tank of nitrogen or helium or something like that connected to it. It can handle a few bumps, it can handle some moisture, it can handle some dust, that kind of thing. 

00;34;47;18 – 00;34;56;17 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. Ideally, you want the technology to move, like, to a tricorder to where are you going to be? You end up analyzing anything for anything. Yeah. 

00;34;56;25 – 00;34;57;18 — Evan Durnal 

That’s what everybody. 

00;34;57;25 – 00;35;00;17 — Dean Gray 

Everybody wants to do is everybody wants to move towards it. 

00;35;00;17 – 00;35;01;07 — Evan Durnal 

Yeah, yeah. 

00;35;01;20 – 00;35;23;27 — Dean Gray 

Yeah. Understood. So, Corrie, Evan, with chemical threat detection research, why why is it important to not just use simulants, but why is it important to use the actual chemical agents in questions when you’re when you’re thinking about a detection system? Let’s go into that for a couple of minutes. 

00;35;24;26 – 00;35;55;28 — Evan Durnal 

Sure. I think the first thing is going back to what you mentioned earlier in the podcast, when when you need a high confidence because the the repercussions or consequences of of an identification of a certain material can be so widespread or so immediate or so frankly deadly to so many people. When you’re building those libraries that we talked about on board, you want it to be the real thing. It can’t be something else that’s similar because there are a lot of things that are very similar when you start getting into the chemistry of things, molecular structures, that kind of thing. 

00;35;55;28 – 00;35;57;08 — Dean Gray 

Like pesticides to. 

00;35;57;10 – 00;36;04;27 — Evan Durnal 

Exactly and over instance chemical agent especially kind of came out of trying to find the new the latest and greatest pesticides work. 

00;36;04;28 – 00;36;05;23 — Dean Gray 

In phosphates. 

00;36;05;23 – 00;37;03;23 — Evan Durnal 

Folks are working on that in you know through World War One, World War Two and those kinds of things. So having the specific material in your library, a must, there’s no no one’s going to argue about that. But also, depending on what technology you talk about, the new technologies out there, things are going to react differently. Some some different molecules with one functional group different in one place, but very similar molecules can have completely different toxicological physiological effects. Might show up completely different on one of these pieces of equipment, then a simulant. So simulant being something that’s, you know, very similar to it, but maybe not as potent or not as deadly. So it’s really important to use the real thing, especially in library building, but also just to, you know, you want that final validation that what you’re making is going to detect on the real thing. No one’s going to buy a car and say, Oh, it’s a self-driving car. Most of the time we tested it when it was attached to a rope, but it will probably pull itself down the road. Yeah. 

00;37;04;14 – 00;37;26;01 — Dean Gray 

You’re right. You mentioned a couple of times during the conversation, Corrie, I’d like you to expand on this a little bit. Is library building now, I know we referred to it earlier as your comparison to the real materials and everything, but go into it in a little bit more depth of what library building is because it is something we do and well, we’ve done this for years. You guys are experts on it, please. 

00;37;26;06 – 00;39;04;07 — Dr. Corrie Carnes-Lowe 

Yeah. So for many of the different technologies, whether it be mass spectrometry or FTIR Raman, we look at the pure substance and we take that pure substance and we analyze it and we put that into the instrument software. That way, when it analyzes an unknown, it knows what to match it against, and then it knows if I’m saying that exact material. And then just to kind of comment back up what Evan was saying, we had a program and this was a few years back, but we developed calibration curves on a portable system that would then allow soldiers to know when they could take their masks off in the field. And those were all with chemical warfare agents. So you needed to do those with actual chemical warfare agents. You didn’t want to do those with a simulant and say, well, we tested it with a simulant, and it says it should be okay for you to take your mask off now. No, I mean, these these are our military. Yeah. Out there we. Want to make sure that we test it with the correct one. And then we, we know when you can take your mask off, when is it safe? So, that’s why you want to test it. So with the libraries, I mean, we’ve built thousands of libraries for different customers and put thousands of them on different systems and based on what their targets of interest are, whether their chemical warfare agents are narcotics or explosives or tech stems, lots of different depending on which group, what their what their chemicals of interest are. 

00;39;04;08 – 00;39;33;17 — Dean Gray 

Is there any end to the number of chemical threat agents? Do we see? I guess what I’m getting at is is is there are some that have been around since World War One and some that are new. Are they all variations on a similar theme or are we seeing something really unique that’s happening in certain chemical thread agent production as well? 

00;39;34;17 – 00;41;02;21 — Evan Durnal 

I think there are certainly groups that are bigger than others. There’s a lot, like we mentioned, you know, more organic phosphorous, pesticide base, just that that’s that group is expanding. But there’s a lot that are completely different. I mean, people looking at using pharmaceuticals as as chemical threats, you know, not just the fentanyl in a pill form, but it’s what happens if I aerosolize this it, you know, a major event. Right. And so that’s other things we do with our outdoor equipment tours like how to protect those events, right? How to keep everybody in a big crowd safe. But there’s yeah. All of the different groups of things. There are some that are very, very similar. And just a variation on theme like Corrie, as I mentioned earlier with the fentanyl derivatives and analogs, those really are kind of that variational theme, right? Very, very similar like their backbones, those kinds of things. But just tweak small tweaks here and there versus low chlorine, you know, for example, completely different than a large molecule, you know, chemical warfare agent on the biological side, I guess, as we all saw, not to get too controversial on it. Right. You know, new things pop up, you know, COVID popped up. Right. So I think there’s probably less just random stuff that occurs on that on on the bio threat kind of side that’s pretty set, so to speak, on the inside convention with different things being synthesized every day. Yeah, you know, the list gets bigger and bigger. Bigger every day. 

00;41;02;24 – 00;41;23;22 — Dean Gray 

Yeah., geeze. Well, all the more reason why the work that we do in this area is so important.  Yeah. All right. I could talk with you guys for a long time about these topics and really appreciate the work that you do at the at the institute and the research that you do. Great colleagues, and thanks very much for joining me here today. 

00;41;23;28 – 00;41;40;18 — Dean Gray 

Thank you. All right. Enjoyed it. All right. Thank you both. See you next time. Thanks for joining us on Gray Matter, Dean Gray. And you can find me at Dean Gray on LinkedIn or to learn more about our work, visit MRIGlobal.org