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Exploding Anthrax (video)
August 21, 2002

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Interviewee: Vincent Fischetti,Rockefeller University.

Video is 1 min 43 sec long. Please be patient while it loads enough to start playing.

Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage from Ray Schuch.

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Elsewhere on the web

American Society for Microbiology phage pages

Anthrax information - CDC

Anthrax interactive tutorial - National Library of Medicine

Lysis simulation

There’s a new weapon in the war against anthrax.

And as this ScienCentral News video reports, it can both detect it quickly and kill it.

Lysins to Kill

When anthrax spores that were sent through the U.S. mail last September took the lives of five victims, Vincent Fischetti’s team at Rockefeller University was already working to harness lysins to combat anthrax.

"We had started on the project at least 6 months prior to the attacks," Fischetti says. "It really stimulated us to move more quickly to try to really find a way to prevent these deaths due to anthrax. It really spurred us on."

The team now reports its success in the journal Nature.

They not only showed that lysin can kill anthrax in laboratory tests and in living animals, they also demonstrated that anthrax is likely to have a hard time developing resistance to lysins.

While antibiotics saved lives following the attacks, scientists warned about burgeoning resistance to antibiotics. And the possibility exists that terrorists could genetically engineer antibiotic-resistant anthrax.

"In the event that there’s an attack with resistant bacteria, these enzymes will be able to kill those organisms," Fishetti says.

The research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Fischetti says development of lysin as an anti-anthrax treatment is being fast-tracked and could be completed within three years.

The New Antibiotics

Sankar Adhya is Chief of Developmental Genetics in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Institutes of Health. He calls phages "a group of new antibiotics" that is likely to replace the broad-spectrum antibiotics developed since the 1940s. "We are making genetically altered phage that can work even better," Adhya says.

"When phage were first discovered in the 1930s, they were called antibiotics," says Adhya. "Phage therapy has historically been used in Russia. But the therapy failed because people didn’t know what it was—the science behind it—and preparations weren’t pure." He adds, "Fischetti knows exactly the chemistry."

While Eastern scientists continued to pursue phage therapy, Western scientists discovered antibiotics, "which worked like magic," he says. "We did not foresee in the ’40s and ’50s that there would be so much resistance."

Adhya credits Texas A&M University’s Ry Young with publishing, in 2001, a "landmark paper" that revealed how phage makes the enzymes that kill bacteria. Thus began a new age of phage in the West. Hundreds of scientists in the U.S. are now focusing on phage, says Adhya. He organized a symposium this summer called "101 Ways to Use Phage."

Fischetti is starting up a company called Enzobiotics to develop lysin drugs against anthrax and other nasty bugs. His group has already isolated specific lysins against pneumococcus, which causes pneumonia; streptococcus, which causes strep throat and ear infections; and staphylococcus and enterococcus, which cause so many hospital infections.

Adhya says the main problem he foresees with using lysins is their size. While most antibiotics on the market are small molecules, lysins are large proteins. "Depending on where the infection is in the body, they might not diffuse to their target so easily," he points out. Adhya does not think this will be true of anthrax lysin. "I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in clinical trials" he says.

by Joyce Gramza

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