Taming the anthrax threat

ANN ARBOR, Mich. In the American governments biodefense efforts, the potential for terrorists to cause a deadly anthrax outbreak remains a significant concern, six years after the letter attacks that shook the nation shortly after 9/11.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School have developed the first complete picture of how anthrax-causing bacteria survive and grow inside unwitting immune cells their supposed attackers during the crucial first moments of anthrax infection. They have also identified gene candidates to pursue as possible anthrax drug targets. They say the methods they used to detect the microbes activities should become important new tools for other researchers.

Ultimately, the goal in this and other related research is to discover more effective, more easily tolerated treatments than those available now if an anthrax attack occurs, says U-M scientist Nicholas H. Bergman, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, which appears in the July edition of Infection and Immunity. Drugs given to people within a day of exposure, before symptoms develop, can prevent illness and death.

In mouse studies using DNA microarray technology, the U-M scientists were able to track which genes and enzymes play key roles in the bacterium that causes anthrax, while it sneaks inside the immune systems first-responder cells in the lungs, called macrophages, and begins to multiply. The work is a significant advance because it will make it much easier to identify precise new targets for better anthrax drugs and vaccines, says Bergman, a research assistant professor of Bioinformatics at the U-M Medical School.

In strategies to quell the anthrax microbe, timing is everything. During most of its life cycle, the organism has formidable defenses. These make it a challenge for scientists to find a prime moment when future drugs, without the digestive-tract side effects and other drawbacks of those used now, can effecti

Contact: Anne Rueter
University of Michigan

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