Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with anthrax (even if you are not into heavy metal bands).  In 2001, there were 10 cases of lethal anthrax infections transmitted via inhalation of spores contained in powders in letters received  by the victims through the U.S. mail.  Six of the patients survived after intensive antibiotic therapy and supportive care.  An effective antidote might have helped to save the other four victims.  However, a recently published study indicates that further help may be on the way with the development of an effective antibody that might be used to prevent anthrax infections and it also might be useful as an effective treatment after infections have already occurred.

Anthrax infects both animals and humans.  It is not uncommon to find anthrax infections in cattle.  Anthrax can infect the skin (surface infections).  These are usually not deadly but they can turn the infected skin black (anthrax is derived from Greek word for coal).  However, inhalation of anthrax spores causes a systemic infection that is almost always deadly unless heroic treatments are available.  The anthrax bacteria produce a three part toxin that is the killer.  One part of the toxin binds to the surface of cells and acts as a transporter to push the other two parts of the toxin into the cellular victims.  Once inside the cell the other two parts of the toxin hijack the cells chemical machinery causing the cell to malfunction and die.  Ultimately when enough of the victim’s cells have been infected and killed, the patient will die.  Well, a new drug (an antibody actually) has been developed that binds to the part of the toxin that attaches to the cell membrane.  This prevents the toxin from gaining access to the cells and therefore the infected victim is protected from the deadly effects of the other two parts of the toxin.  The new drug is called Raxibacumab and it is underdevelopment by Human Genome Sciences.  The data were published in the July 9, 2009 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (http://content.nejm.org.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/cgi/content/full/361/2/135#R4).  This article described successful outcomes in laboratory animals infected with anthrax bacteria.  Clinical trials are ongoing to test the safety and tolerability of the antibody in healthy human subjects.

This is an interesting study that has helped to understand the basic biology of how bacterial toxins produce their lethal effects.  However, this study will certainly have a positive impact on efforts to combat bioterrorism.  This is good news for everyone, including heavy metal rock bands!

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