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Bioterror: When An Antidote Can Strike Back

One gram of botulism neurotoxin has the potential to kill millions of people.

Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Labs are working together, for the first time, to create an antidote. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency granted the research project to assuage bioterror success of botulism toxin. In a recent press release, the project carries the title, “Structure-Based Discovery of Pan-Active Botulinum Neurotoxin Inhibitors.”

“It is a competitive research project. We have the experts. We are pretty confident that in two years we can get the preliminary structure for an antidote,” said Dr. Iwao Ojima, director of the Institute of Chemical Biology & Drug Discovery, or ICB&DD, at Stony Brook University. “This is our first target. The ICB&DD has not researched antidotes to neurotoxins before.”

Although experimental vaccines to the toxin have existed as early as World War II, vaccines, traditionally based on antibodies, would not be effective once the toxin entered the cell. By clogging up the nerve endings that signal the muscles to contract, the botulism toxin paralyzes a person. In the event of botulinum bioterror, the paralysis of respiratory muscles would leave millions unable to breathe.

“one hundred nangrams can kill one person. 100 milligrams can kill a million people,” said Dr. Subramanyam Swaminatham, a Brookhaven Nation Labs biologist who leads a research team in botulinum toxin.

Vaccines employ antibodies against the bacteria, not the botulinum neurotoxin. “Once you are infected with the toxin, there is no cure available,” Dr. Swaminatham said.

Stony Brook University and Brookhaven Labs plan to research chemical therapy as the possible neurotoxin antidote. In the press release, President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., called the project a critical area for biodefense and public health.

According to Dr. Swaminatham, the neurotoxin is not difficult to produce in a lab. The research project will need clearance from the Center of Disease Control, or CDC, in order to produce it for antitoxin research. Terrorists do not need sophisticated labs or top-class scientists to produce the botulinum toxin.

Poorly canned goods made botulism more of a household word. Manufactured botulinum neurotoxin, if for bioterror purposes, could be embedded into food and water supplies. Bioterrorism is a much quieter terror method, compared to explosive chemicals and nuclear bombs.

The recent news of the Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutullab revealed that the US lightly handled a threat to national security. The father of the would-be bomber warned a US Embassy in Nigeria about the “extreme religious views” of his son. The warning was not considered serious enough to put Abdulmutullab on the no-fly list, which brought danger to those airline passengers flying into Michigan.

While Obama administration officials quarrel with critics over thwarting Abdulmutullab from boarding the Michigan-bound plane, terrorism threats are far from over in the US.  A month after the Christmas Day bomb attempt, a commission gave the Obama administration an “F” grade for rapid and effective response in bioterrorism. It was one of three “F” grades that came from the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

The commission also gave a “D+” on the US government’s oversight on high-containment labs. In a press release, it maintained that a bioterrorist attack will happen between now and 2013 if the Obama administration does not strengthen efforts in these fields. The grades come a year after the commission’s threat first assessment report, “World at Risk.”

“The main premise for botulinum research was Saddam Hussein. His weapons carried botulinum toxin,” said Dr. Swaminatham, in a telephone interview. In the 1990s, Iraq admitted to the United Nations that it produced almost 20,000 liters of botulinum toxin at the Al Hakam factory. Much of the toxin was loaded onto R-400 aerial bombs, which the UN safely destroyed.

The Stony Brook University and Brookhaven Nation Labs research project marked an attempt to improve safeguards against at least one form of bioterrorism. Dr. Subramanyam Swaminatham and Dr. Iwao Ojima both reflect that the project might improve the “F” grades the Obama administration received. The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism did give the administration an “A” grade for advancing bioforensic capabilities.

“This project is multidisciplinary, and will be a combined effort of experts from different areas to find the botulinum antidote. I’m pretty confident about it,” assured Dr. Ojim.

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