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Kevin Sweder makes his mark with epigenetics

Weeks after 9/11, a series of anthrax-laced letters were mailed to various news organizations and government offices around the country. The attack killed five people and sickened 17 others, while forcing the shut-down of U.S mail processing centers and evacuation of federal buildings.   

Thirteen years and millions of dollars later, the case remains unresolved, due, in part, to the primary suspect’s suicide in 2008. That the FBI has been accused of working with flawed evidenced has only complicated matters.

What if the FBI had better forensic tools with which to work? Would the outcome have changed if investigators had some kind of genetic marker or molecular fingerprint to determine if the suspect had been exposed to anthrax?

Kevin Sweder thinks so. As a genetic toxicologist, he studies proteins that repair damaged DNA. When cells are exposed to some kind of physical, chemical, or biological agent (e.g., anthrax), Sweder studies the chemical reactions that take place and, in turn, activate or deactivate parts of the genome.

This process, known as epigenetics, may be tracked through subsequent generations of cell division.

“Conceivably, one could analyze the genes for these histone modifications to determine if someone has been exposed to anthrax, long after the agent is gone,” Sweder says.

Much of his work takes place in FNSSI’s new state-of-the-art laboratory suite in Lyman Hall. When he is not developing biochemical methods for bioforensic and bioterrorist detection, he may also be found studying DNA repair mechanisms and genetic toxicology.

“Kevin is helping us push the boundaries of DNA-based forensics research,” says James T. Spencer, associate dean of The College and executive director of FNSSI. “His work reflects the growing need for methodologies involving bioterrorism threats, chemical detection and analysis, and sample provenance and origin."

Sweder is no stranger to higher education. After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology, he spent eight years as an assistant professor at Rutgers University. But it was the opportunity to work for the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb (where he eventually rose to director of genetic toxicology) that solidified his passion for research.

When FNSSI needed a professor of practice—specifically a biochemist—in 2010, Sweder was the perfect choice.

“My goal is to figure out the epigenetic changes involved with DNA repair, how long-lived those changes are, and the genetic markers we need to look at that are specific for UV exposure,” he says. “If I’m successful, the information may be applied to developing forensics tools for detecting exposure to specific toxins or for developing ways to minimize the effects of toxins on exposed populations.”

Recently, Sweder helped broker an academic partnership with ChemImage Inc., a provider of hyperspectral imaging (HSI) technology, which examines security documents, such as mail, banknotes, and passports, in a non-invasive manner.

“This collaboration will enable an assessment of the extent of hyperspectral technology and will determine new uses for hyperspectral imaging,” he says. “It’s very exciting.”

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