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Researching anthrax may provide basis for a new kind of cellular vaccine

By Lena Atherton
Daily Cougar Staff 

The word anthrax usually conjures up feelings of fear and anxiety, yet University of Houston biochemist Steven Blanke offers an alternative view on this biological weapon of war. In Sheldon Smartís article of the January issue of Collegium, Blanke said, "Anthrax is a very neat bacteria, even though it can be deadly." 

Anthrax works by penetrating the body at the cellular level. "This ability of anthrax toxin to enter cells is not well understood, but studying the phenomenon will teach us valuable lessons about how the host cell works, and how to deliver therapeutic agents (vaccines) into cells," Blanke said.

Anthrax can be simplified into two components. The first component serves as a delivery vehicle for the second, a deadly toxin called the payload. Together, these two components penetrate the victimís cells.

Blanke is working on a way to "uncouple" anthraxís two-component system by removing the lethal payload, and substituting a "therapeutic agent," such as a vaccine, in its place.

Blanke's method of targeting diseases at the cellular level places him in a relatively new arena for disease control. 

"I think we have no choice but to study infectious disease, not only at the cellular level, but at the molecular level," he said.

"Not only will these studies illuminate the complex interactions between pathogens and humans, they will likely reveal novel strategies for antibiotic and vaccine design." 


  •  Anthrax is a severe infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis.

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  • Humans were first infected with anthrax through exposure to animals or animal byproducts.

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  • Symptoms of anthrax, which can become apparent as early as 24 hours after inhalation, can include fever, cough and weakness that can lead to shock and death.

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  • The fifth Egyptian plague, around 1500 B.C., is believed to have been the result of anthrax.

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  • During the Middle Ages, anthrax became known as the "Black Bane" and was responsible for nearly destroying the cattle herds of Europe.

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  • Louis Pasteur created the first man-made anthrax vaccine for animals in the 1800s.

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  • During the 1980s, inspection teams discovered that Iraq had produced 8,000 liters of anthrax spores -- an amount believed capable of killing every man, woman and child on earth.

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  • May 18, 1998, Secretary of Defense William Cohen approved a plan to vaccinate all U.S. service members for anthrax.


 

Still, the threat of anthrax remains strong. Major Guy Strawder, director of the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program Agency and Office of the Army Surgeon General said, "If we wanted to create the perfect biological agent it would be anthrax. 

"Anthrax is inexpensive and easy to produce, and it doesn't require a lot of sophisticated equipment," said Strawder. "It can be stored for longs periods of time and can survive in the environment for periods as long as 40 years."

However, Blanke offers a ray of hope in the midst of this global threat, "The ability to successfully treat and prevent disease due to biological agents may play a part to deter potential use of the agent."
 

Reach Atherton at 
dccampus@mail.uh.edu.

Last update:
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