Natural-born killers enlisted to fight anthrax

Researchers at The Rockefeller University have hit upon a promising method for rapidly and effectively treating people infected with the deadly anthrax bacterium - including feared drug-resistant strains. The new research, reported in the August 22 issue of Nature, takes advantage of anthrax's number one natural enemy: bateriophage, or "bacteria-eating" viruses.

Bacteriophages, also known as phage, have been battling anthrax and other species of bacteria for billions of years. By isolating one of their primary weapons, the Rockefeller scientists have developed a powerful new agent that can specifically target and wipe out millions of anthrax bacteria within seconds. In addition, the technology shows promise as an anthrax detection and decontamination tool.

"We now know that anthrax is a real threat," says Vincent A. Fischetti, Ph.D., head of the Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology at Rockefeller and principal author of the paper.

"But even more of a threat are multidrug-resistant strains of anthrax, which may occur naturally or may be engineered by terrorists using common molecular techniques. Consequently, alternative strategies for combating these dangerous strains are needed now more than ever."

Funding this research is Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Phage (plural) are the most abundant life form on earth and can be found anywhere that bacteria thrive, such as soil, water and sewage. Like human viruses, they inject their genetic material into the bacterial cell, replicate by the hundreds per cell, then burst out before moving on to the next host cell.

In the Nature study, Fischetti and co-authors Raymond Schuch, Ph.D., and Daniel Nelson, Ph.D., focused on a phage that specifically infects the biowarfare agent Bacillus anthracis - anthrax. They isolated the enzyme that allows these phage to rupt

Contact: Whitney Clavin
Rockefeller University

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