NCCU Awarded Grant to Help Detect Biological Threats at the Border
North Carolina Central University has received a $330,000 grant to develop tools that help the U.S. Department of Homeland Security predict and spot risks at the border from biological threats such as COVID-19, African swine fever, and insect pests.
The grant, awarded in January from the Minority Serving Institutions STEM Research and Development Consortium,(MSRDC) will assist in developing the risk-assessment tools.
MSRDC is a national consortium of minority-serving higher education institutions. The project calls for development of new state-of-the-art forecasting and alerting capabilities. They will help the U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit of Homeland Security safeguard against entry by pests and diseases that could have a detrimental impact on the nation’s environment or economy.
Another major collaborator is Orion Integrated Biosciences, a specialized biodefense company based in Kansas. Orion CEO Willy Valdivia said the work extends ongoing efforts by Orion to use genomic bio-surveillance systems to assess potential threats. “More importantly, teaming up with researchers from NCCU will open new directions and collaborations and will strengthen our presence in North Carolina,” Valdivia said.
In the project, artificial intelligence and statistics based on historic data will be used to develop algorithms that perform forecasting functions. These algorithms will expand the predictive capabilities and efficient use of inspection resources for bio-surveillance and bio-threat assessments at the border.
Trade and travel patterns will be analyzed to determine how agricultural pests are most likely to enter the United States, for instance. The information will be integrated into Customs and Border Protection surveillance of bio-threats and hazards.
Royston Carter, a Triangle-based biotechnology consultant, works with Orion and helped put the collaboration together. Carter tells the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, “Once fully implemented, this forecasting system will enhance border security, safe travel and trade. It will identify and prioritize those threats most likely to arrive at different U.S. ports of entry in passenger luggage, cargo and mail shipments.”
Product-focused, ready this year
He added, “This project is very product-focused, with an aim to have a prototype tool ready for testing and implementation before the end of the year. These are precisely the types of new capabilities that DHS and CBP need right now and going forward.”
NCCU Biological and Biomedical Sciences Associate Professor TinChung Leung, Ph.D., will lead the project as principal investigator. He will be joined by a multi-departmental team that includes faculty from biological and biomedical sciences, business, mathematics and physics. The work is also supported by the university’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute (JLC- BBRI) and will include research opportunities for students.
In a statement, Deepak Kumar, Ph.D., director of JLC-BBRI said, “This project will enhance the research and educational capability at NCCU and provide opportunities for our students and faculty to gain experiences in national security areas such as data science and border security. Students will obtain mentorship from both industry and academia, with the goal of gaining hands-on experience of complex data analysis used to solve real-life problems.”
NCBiotech Vice President of Agriculture Sector Development Scott Johnson provided a letter of support on behalf of the application. Carter said the Biotech Center has helped Orion with a number of projects in the state. Orion is also working with North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. North Carolina will be where Orion focuses its plant-oriented ag tech efforts, Carter said.