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Revolutionary antibiotic against anthrax

A preparation developed by Israeli researchers from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology - destroys the Anthrax pathogen and the toxins it secretes into the bloodstream .This is the first step on the way to making an effective drug against this potentially hazardous bio-terrorism weapon.

Anthrax

Anthrax is a bacterium that primarily affects grazing animals, such as sheep, cattle, goats and horses. The Anthrax pathogen generally does not infect humans but on occasion there have been known cases of contamination. The first attempt to weaponize Anthrax was during World War I when German agents set up a clandestine laboratory in Baltimore, Maryland to infect livestock and transportation animals. During World War II Japan, Great Britain, and the United States all proceeded with research into the use of Anthrax as a weapon. Although there is no recorded use of Anthrax against combatants, the Japanese did test the bacterium on both animals and allied prisoners. During the Cold War, the USSR continued to develop both weaponized Anthrax and delivery systems in a secret bio-weapons research facility in Sverdlovsk. An accident in the facility led to the death of 66 of 77 diagnosed cases. After September 11th, the US also suffered an Anthrax attack during which the bacterium was delivered through the mail causing five fatalities. The exact reason for the attack was never disclosed but it caused tremendous panic and raised the public awareness of the danger of bio-terror and Anthrax in particular.

Anthrax is caused by bacteria that are a rod shaped organism known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is a non-motile organism between 1-5 micrometers in length. Upon exposure to air, Anthrax forms a spore, which can become airborne and cause infection to exposed individuals. Anthrax spores can cause disease by coming in contact with abraded skin or wounds, by inhalation or by ingestion. As Anthrax reproduces, it releases three virulence factors: lethal factor, edema factor and antiphagocytic factor. Each of these substances enhances the destruction of cells and resists the immune system. Skin Anthrax is a disease that starts with the spore colonizing the skin through an abrasion, cut or wound. Mortality rates of skin Anthrax victims range from 20-25% without treatment, less than one percent with treatment. Inhalation Anthrax on the other hand is a much more lethal disease and has mortality rates of 95-100% despite antibiotic treatment. Ingestion Anthrax is less common but has about the same mortality rates as Inhalation Anthrax.

There are two major ways to fight Anthrax:

1. Prevention - using biohazard suits and protective gear as well as closing and disinfecting the contaminated area. Using vaccine (like those administered to American troops before the Iraq war) is another way to prevent the disease, although it has its problems (mainly due to the need to reissue the vaccine every few months to keep the immune system boosted).

2. Treatment until now large doses of antibiotics were the main form of treatment, although in cases of inhalation or ingestion of Anthrax the mortality rates are still very high.

Prof. Timor Baaso

This breakthrough research conducted in the Technion may help save the lives of those who have already been infected with the disease. Professor Timor Baasov of the Technions Faculty of Chemistry, together with Professor Chi-Huey Wong of the Scripps Research Institute in California, has developed new antibiotics that can serve as the basis for a future antidote to Anthrax. The antibiotics attack not only the bacillus itself but also the toxic protein that the Anthrax releases into the bloodstream of the infected person. It is also able to neutralize the toxic protein, even if the bacillus has already been released into the bloodstream.

The antibiotics developed by Prof. Baasov and his colleagues are currently in the developmental stages and animal testing will have to take place before trials on humans can be considered, nevertheless, this is an important step in the fight against bio-terror.

Iddo Genuth

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