July 31, 2003 TROY, N.Y. – Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., have been awarded new federal grant money to develop experimental compounds that may someday extend the period during which a person exposed to anthrax can be treated successfully. Ravi Kane, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer has been awarded a grant of $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop inhibitors of the anthrax toxin. The inhibitors will be tested in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Mogridge at the University of Toronto.
The potentially deadly disease anthrax is caused by a toxin secreted by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Antibiotics can kill the bacteria and, started early enough, offer successful treatment in many cases. Standard antibiotic treatment has no effect on the amount of toxin that builds up in the blood over time, however, making speedy treatment crucial.
Standing in the Way of Infection
"An effective anthrax inhibitor would be able to prevent the toxin from binding to receptors on the human cell, thereby hindering the toxin from doing any damage," Kane said. Unlike antibiotics, which can kill the bacteria but do not affect the toxin, an inhibitor also would be able to reduce levels of toxin that have been released into the body. Once levels of toxin have been lowered, standard antibiotic treatment also would be administered to kill all remaining bacteria. "Combined with standard antibiotic treatment, a toxin inhibitor would enable the successful treatment of anthrax at later stages of the disease and allow many more lives to be saved," Kane said.
New Option for Prevention
Heightened awareness of the ability to deliver anthrax spores through the air, combined with the high mortality rate of the inhaled form of the disease, has led to the use of the spores as a biological weapon. An anthrax vaccine currently is available, but large-scale use is not practical, says Kane. "An anthrax inhibitor also might be able to function as a preventive agent," says Kane, "and could be used as an alternative to passive immunotherapy." The inhibitor agent could be more affordable and shelf-stable, making such a treatment suitable for stockpiling.
Kane's anthrax inhibitor research is part of Rensselaer's overall effort to advance biotechnology discoveries for the benefit of public health, the environment, homeland security, bioterrorism, and for positive economic development locally and globally.
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