Studies aim at biological weapons

Researchers seeking vaccines to thwart threats of bioterrorism

By: Lety Laurel
San Antonio Express-News
May 19, 2004, Wednesday

In nature, tularemia doesn't pose much of a threat to the general public. It is a rare disease, with only about 200 cases recorded each year. Its common form has flu-like symptoms and can be treated with antibiotics, but its more severe counterpart, pneumonic tularemia, kills if left untreated.

A high mortality rate, easy accessibility and the ability for its bacteria to spread through the air also make it the perfect biological weapon.

"There is an awareness after 9-11 that the public is extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and one way terrorists can attack is through biological weapons," said Karl Klose, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "The fact is biological weapons are the poor man's terrorist agent. It's hard to get hold of plutonium for nuclear bombs, but it's not hard to find natural agents."

Tularemia is found in the United States and is caused primarily by bacteria found in rodents, rabbits and hares. But in World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States turned it into a biological weapon. The United States later destroyed it, under orders from then-President Richard Nixon. The Soviet Union continued working on the biological weapon.

Although it never was used by either nation, it is feared that information on tularemia may have been leaked to other countries when the Soviet Union dissolved, Klose said.

He is among a team of researchers now studying the bacterium, along with a handful of other viruses and bacteria considered to be a risk to national security by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Joining him are researchers from the Health Science Center, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research who are collaborating with scientists in a five-state region that comprises the Western Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Made up of 36 scientists from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, the center is working on ways to quickly diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses stemming from tularemia, anthrax, smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fevers. It also is researching emerging infectious diseases.

The center is one of eight established around the nation this past September with a $350 million grant from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the National Institutes of Health. Another $48 million will be given to the center's lead institution, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, over the next five years to divide among its research projects.

While some research already was being done on the diseases, it was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax attacks on Congress soon afterward that drove home the urgent need for increased funding toward researching potential biological weapons, scientists say.

"Because of lessons learned from previous events such as the anthrax attack, we found out we were not prepared to deal with bioterrorism," said Douglas Watts, professor of the department of pathology at UTMB. "Also, with West Nile as an example of a viral infection, when it was introduced in 1999 we found we weren't prepared for the natural outbreak of viruses."

The government didn't fund many projects that dealt with biological weapons because of the assumed low risk for the general population, and that led to the slow reaction by the government to identify anthrax as the agent used in the 2001 attack, Klose said.

"It was a complete failure of our government to respond to those attacks. People had to die before they knew what was going on," he said. "A few well-placed spores led to the shutdown of government and pure chaos on the part of Congress.

"One of the things is biodefense is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that has always been there," he added.

And while money for researching agents like anthrax was previously hard to find, funds suddenly started flooding in after the attacks.

"Congress is the spearhead behind all these (regional centers of excellence)," Klose said. "They're the ones that pushed through all the money because they were the target and they were scared and willing to do what they could to make sure it (anthrax terrorism) couldn't happen again.

"I don't like to alarm the public, but that's why it's so important to fund this research - because we're coming up with ways to protect the public so they don't have to live in fear all the time," he added.

The Southwest Foundation's role in the WRCE is to offer scientific expertise as well as a lab specially equipped for the safe study of dangerous and infectious pathogens for which there is no known treatment or cure. It also houses the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

Just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, scientists from the Southwest Foundation, teaming with the University of Texas at Austin, created an antibody that saved lab rats from anthrax toxin. The new antibody cleared the body of the deadly toxin that the bacteria produce, which is what kills people with late-stage anthrax infection.

"We had been working on that well before Sept. 11, and we were doing the final experiment when the anthrax attacks began taking place, which made us feel very relevant," said Jean L. Patterson, chairwoman of the department of virology and immunology at the Southwest Foundation.

"The (National Institutes of Health) didn't fund much of this; a lot was from the Department of Defense because of the military going overseas to places that might be at risk," she added. "Since 9-11, the domestic population is now at risk and they have stepped up the amounts of funding that we have never seen before."

Hans Heidner, associate professor of virology at UTSA, also was researching a group of viruses called alphaviruses before the WRCE was established. Some alphaviruses have a history in weapons research.

"The very beneficial thing is you are contributing to an issue of national importance," he said. "You certainly have many people in the military making their contribution, and for researchers, this is a way for us to contribute as well."

Because of the new threat, traditional scientific approaches have changed, Watts said. Where scientists once were focused mainly on knowledge and publication, the new focus is creating vaccines as quickly as possible.

"The investigators were out there before and were working on tularemia and anthrax, but the really unique thing about this program is they were focused more on understanding basic science aspects, like how it really causes disease," Watts said. "Now we're being asked to change the university culture from going more toward an emphasis on clinical evaluation and product development."

And for the first time, a national collaborative effort is the ultimate goal.

"The idea behind the RCE is each region contributes more than just the sum of its parts," said Kimberly Schuenke, associate director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at UTMB.

"We have a lot of research projects in the RCE, but because of collaboration it is a stronger scientific program. It will be more successful."