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Innovative Methods Could Stop Anthrax

Disinfectant-soaked clothing and antibodies grown in plants may fight infection

TUESDAY, March 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New studies suggest scientists could foil anthrax attacks with three simple weapons: clothing treated with a disinfectant, a food preservative, and human antibodies grown in a tobacco plant.

Much of the work is preliminary, and anthrax remains a major threat. But researchers presenting their findings this week at the American Society for Microbiology Biodefense Research Meeting, in Baltimore, are hopeful the interventions will work.

One of the most intriguing studies is from researchers who coaxed a plant into producing human antibodies -- immune system 'soldiers' designed to target anthrax.

Les Baillie, a scientist at the Naval Medical Research Center, in Washington, D.C., said his team's goal was to find a way to boost the body's ability to fight off anthrax infection.

Anthrax can wreak havoc in the body, and because the disease mimics the flu doctors may not realize patients are infected until it's too late. Vaccines provided during treatment can help the body produce antibodies, but sick patients may not have the luxury of time that full immunization requires.

Instead, Baillie's team decided to let a common plant do the work. Because Baillie had been previously vaccinated against anthrax, he was already producing the required antibodies within his own body. The team sampled some of these antibodies and removed particular antibody-producing genes.

They then 'piggybacked' the genes onto a harmless bacteria and introduced it into Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the common tobacco plant. The bacteria introduced the antibody-producing genes into the plant's cells, which then went to work producing the human antibodies within a few days.

"The plants don't naturally make antibodies, but they can make human antibodies," Baillie explained. "It's very weird, but very useful for us."

These antibodies were then reintroduced into mice, and were successful in protecting the rodents against anthrax -- suggesting they could be used in humans in conjunction with antibiotics.

The technology is still in its early stages, however, and Baillie stressed that "we have to be very careful. Man is not a mouse."

In another study, researchers at Biosynexus Inc., in Gaithersburg, Md., report that a commonly used food preservative called Nisin could help neutralize anthrax germs.

According to the company, Nisin is a natural germ fighter used in some foods. Researchers found that it successfully kept anthrax spores from germinating.

The next step, the company said, is to figure out how to help the preservative protect human skin. Options include a wiping cloth, a cream or a foam.

Clothing could be another tool against anthrax, according to a scientist from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

Jon Calomiris, a microbiologist, found that fabric treated with an antimicrobial compound killed off 90 percent to 99 percent of anthrax spores. The ammonium-based compound is used in antiseptic soaps and skin lotions, he said.

Treated fabric could be used to produce clothing, tents and tarps, he said, providing anthrax protection at times when it's not feasible to quickly replace potentially contaminated material.

Calomiris said the treated fabric could also serve other uses, such as protecting patients in hospitals. But the cost of the treatment isn't yet known, he said.

More information

Learn more about anthrax from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Les Baillie, Ph.D., scientist, Naval Medical Research Center, Washington D.C.; and Jon Calomiris, Ph.D., microbiologist, Air Force Research Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; March 20-23, 2005, presentations, American Society for Microbiology Biodefense Research Meeting, Baltimore
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