In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— In Flanders Fields,
by John McCrae
Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” above, after he saw bright red poppies growing around the graves of the more than 6,000 soldiers who died at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.
The battle marked a horrific moment in World War I — the introduction of chemical weapons as Germany used chlorine gas against the Canadian Expeditionary Force. But the scars from that battle have also inspired scientists to this day to work toward antidotes for chemical agents.
On that muddy battlefield was a young lieutenant named Alexander Bannard, serving in the 8th Infantry Battalion. This soldier, like many others, was exposed to chlorine gas and survived. He returned home and had a son, but he lived the rest of his days with damaged lungs.
The son of the veteran was Robert A.B. Bannard. Bannard was so appalled by his father’s suffering that he dedicated his career to counteracting chemical weapons. Bannard grew up to be a doctor and researcher for the military, and worked at the Defense Research Establishment in Ottawa, where he developed a substance called Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion (RSDL), a cream that can wipe away chemical agents from the skin.
The use of chemical weapons did not stop with World War I. The United States built, and later destroyed, a vast chemical arsenal. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against civilians during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and later against his own people.
Most recently the Syrian military killed about 1,000 people in a sarin nerve gas attack in a suburb of Damascus. One of the more insidious aspects of the nerve agent was that people trying to help the victims also died when they touched the sarin. Among the horrified onlookers watching Internet videos of the attacks was Tim Henry, executive vice president of the protective products group of Emergent Biosolutions.
Henry leads the division of the company, based on College Road East, that is responsible for making RSDL, which is FDA-approved for use against sarin and many other chemical warfare agents. In fact, the company had been providing the chemical defense to nonprofit groups working in Syria for months before the chemical attacks, having sold RSDL to Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and other groups.
Shortly after the attacks, Henry received a call from the Syrian-American Medical Society, a group of doctors operating in Syria to help treat civilians harmed in the war. “We had a heartbreaking discussion about physicians who would go into Syria to help people who were attacked, and that was in fact the way they were contaminated and died,” Henry recalls. “The Syrian-American Medical Society lost seven of their own people trying to help.”
It only takes a tiny dot of sarin to kill a person, Henry says. RSDL can neutralize the substance if it is used right away, and can also protect first responders from being killed while trying to assist someone who has been hit with sarin. Government sanctions against Syria prevented Emergent from selling RSDL directly to rebel medics or civilians in the war zone, though Henry says the White House is reconsidering that policy.
The business of protecting people from chemical weapons is nothing new for Henry. Henry has a background in chemistry and military intelligence, making him a uniquely qualified manager for a chemical weapons defense outfit. Henry grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where his father was a mechanic and his mother was a nurse. He served in the Army Security Agency and later with the National Security Agency as an analyst and Russian linguist, afterwards attending Princeton where he earned a master’s in chemistry in 1983. Henry is married to his college sweetheart, Linda, and has two sons.
After Princeton, Henry began a career in technology starting with a Monsanto startup in Cranbury, and working for Long Island-based particle accelerator maker Radiation Dynamics before founding his own company, Process Medical in Stony Brook, New York. His company provided consulting for drug makers, medical device manufacturers and diagnostics kit makers. In the 1990s he moved to Princeton, where he worked for Ion Beam Medical. The firm was in the business of irradiating food to kill bacteria.
In 2001 Henry’s career took another turn. Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, someone sent anthrax-laced letters to several news media offices and two senators, killing five and infecting 17. The letters contaminated several local post offices, including the Trenton main post office. Henry realized that someone needed to decontaminate all the mail going forward, and that Ion Beam already had the means to do so. Henry got the company a government contract to zap tractor trailers full of mail with electron and x-ray beams to kill any anthrax spores or other biological agents.
Henry was laid off when Ion Beam was sold to PPM Ventures in 2004. The experience gave him the idea for his own company, SteriFleet, which made wide-area detection filters that could be attached to the end of ordinary vacuum cleaners and would give early warning if there was ricin or anthrax in the workplace. SteriFleet provided services and equipment for the Department of Homeland Security (U.S. 1, February 2, 2005).
In 2005, the stories of Henry and Brannard came together when Henry began working at Lake Success, New York-based E-Z-EM to grow the firm’s RSDL business. At the time E-Z-EM’s primary business was manufacturing contrast agents for medical radiology, a business that had been shrinking for years. Recently, E-Z-EM had been looking to branch out into other fields by purchasing a small company in Montreal called O’Dell Engineering that had a license to manufacture RSDL but was only making about $600,000 a year doing it.
Henry was surprised the company wasn’t doing better if it truly had a product that could help governments counteract chemical weapons. He began to read scientific studies on RSDL and was amazed by what he saw. When he heard that the substance was effective against every chemical warfare agent currently in use, he had a hard time believing it.
“My first thought was that it’s snake oil,” he says, his mind going back to the hucksters who had peddled fake anthrax hand creams and prophylactics in the days after the 2001 attacks. “The idea that one product could remove or neutralize a wide range of chemical weapons just didn’t smell right to me.”
But sure enough, it turned out that RSDL had been widely studied since it was developed in the 1980s, and was found to actually work as advertised. “What I didn’t think about at the time was that to be a chemical warfare agent, two things have to occur,” Henry says. “You have to be able to penetrate through the skin. That’s a really tough thing for most chemicals to do. But chemical warfare agents are designed to do just that. Secondly, they have to interact with the human body in a very specific way. If you change anything about the starting product, it either can’t penetrate through the skin, or once it does penetrate through the skin, it doesn’t have that particular reaction that it did before. All we really had to do was find chemistries that simply change it from what it was to anything else.”
In the case of RSDL, the FDA found it was able to turn all sorts of chemicals into harmless non-toxic byproducts. If used in time — a window that varies depending on the chemical agent — it could save the life of a chemical attack victim.
Bannard designed RSDL to be simple to use in an emergency. It comes in an impregnated sponge that can be carried by a soldier or a first responder team. All they have to do is rip open the package and scrub the affected area. The lotion is now used by most of the world’s militaries and many intelligence agencies and first responder groups as part of a standard kit for chemical decontamination.
“Every single day, at least a million warfighters look at our product. It is one of the four things, they know, on a daily basis, will be responsible for saving their life should they go into battle, along with their weapon, their gas mask, and their training,” Henry says.
Henry had built the RSDL division into a $30 million a year business by the time E-Z-EM was purchased by Princeton-based Bracco Diagnostics in 2008. Last year Bracco’s protective services group was acquired by Rockville, Maryland-based Emergent Biosolutions. Henry says Emergent plans to grow the RSDL business even further, and put it into the hands of more civilian first responders.Right now, the New York City Fire Department has its own stockpile of RSDL that its hazmat teams could use to protect first responders in the event of a chemical attack. But so far, no effort has been made to stock the lotion where it could be used soon enough to help civilian victims.
RSDL also shows some promise in areas other than chemical warfare, although it has not been approved by the FDA for anything else. Studies at the Livermore National Laboratories showed it could neutralize certain industrial chemicals as well, making it potentially useful for civilian applications.
Henry says he is aware of several real-world uses of RSDL, though the details are confidential. He says in one instance, two workers at a laboratory were exposed to mustard gas. Both were taken to separate hospitals, where one patient received standard decontamination treatment, and the other got RSDL because a doctor there had heard of it. The one who got RSDL was back at work within a few days, and the other took months to recover, Henry says.
If Henry’s work with RSDL is successful, the treatment will be available the next time chemical weapons are used. Maybe the next Battle of Ypres will prove less deadly thanks to the work of Bannard, Henry, and all the others who are working to counteract chemical weapons. It’s a mission that the protective products group remembers every day: the company’s logo is a bright red poppy, the flower used to commemorate the British Commonwealth’s Remembrance Day on November 11.
Emergent BioSolutions (EBS), 305 College Road East, Princeton 08540; 517-489-5176. Tim Henry, executive vice president. www.emergentbiosolutions.com.