|Spring/Summer 2007||Volume 22, Number 2||Findings Magazine|
ANTHRAX, genetics for drugs
Gene research may lead to new drugs and vaccines that can prevent anthrax infection or minimize its effects.
In the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks that terrorized American newsrooms, killed five people, and sickened 17 others —some of whom still report lingering health problems, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and memory loss—scientists across the nation are working to develop new vaccines and treatments aimed at thwarting Bacillus anthracis, the highly infectious pathogen that causes anthrax.
Key to unraveling the mysteries of the deadly bacterium is an understanding of how its nearly 6,000 genes work. By growing anthrax spores, extracting RNA from those spores, and then tracking the gene-expression levels of the RNA on a microchip, researchers can detect those genes that consistently express together over time, and they can begin to deduce the function of those genes.
“When you see a new gene clustered around known genes, you can use ‘guilt-by-association thinking’ to assign a function to those unknown genes,” says SPH biostastician Steve Qin, who’s using new clustering techniques to help UM Medical School colleagues Nicholas Bergman and Philip Hanna document gene-expression patterns during all phases of the B. anthracis life cycle—especially at its earliest stages of infection. The three are collaborating on a five-year, $5.9 million study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The researchers hope to distinguish specific elements in the bacterium and host that are essential for anthrax infection, and to identify the bacterium’s weak points so that scientists can target new drugs and vaccines more effectively to prevent anthrax infection or minimize its effects. Their work is critical to the country’s growing efforts to prepare for and prevent biological warfare.
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> Humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by inhaling anthrax spores from contaminated animal products.
> B. anthracis spores can live in the soil for many years.
> Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal
> The anthrax vaccine is manufactured and distributed by Emergent BioSolutions of Rockville, Maryland (formerly BioPort of Lansing, Michigan).