Studies Point Way to New Anthrax Therapies. Part 1

Research Excites Officials, But Won’t Help in Current Outbreak

Two new studies in the journal Nature give scientists a window onto the way anthrax bacteria kills its cellular prey. The findings could help researchers come up with more effective treatments or vaccines against the potentially deadly germ, though experts say any clinical benefit from the work is far off.

“You can’t rush the science, but when the science points you in the right direction, then you can start rushing,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who attended a press conference on the work. “What we have here is the basis to do some very serious translation” of basic science into therapies.

Nature says it released the papers, both of which appear as research letters, ahead of their Nov. 8 publication date because of the intense interest in anthrax. America is on high alert for the infection, which has now cropped up in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., where two postal workers died from the inhaled form of the disease.

The death toll from inhaled anthrax is now three, including the first victim in Florida earlier this month. Several others have the skin form of the illness, which typically responds well to antibiotics.

Anthrax attacks its hosts with three toxins. Two of these, lethal factor (LF) and edema factor (EF) do the deadly work. The third, protective antigen (PA), acts like a molecular “syringe” to inject LF and EF into host cells. The anthrax vaccine given to U.S. troops relies largely on PA for its protection against the disease.

For humans, inhaled anthrax’s targets macrophages, white blood cells that patrol for invaders like germs and viruses.

When breathed in, anthrax spores penetrate deep into the airways, where they are attacked by macrophages. But the spores germinate and start producing more bacteria, literally bursting the macrophages, releasing the toxins and allowing the infection to spread rapidly. Although antibiotics can kill individual anthrax germs, they’re powerless against the toxins. Experts say the ideal therapy would block the action of anthrax’s toxins.

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