News Release

$9.2 Million Grant Enables Scripps Scientists to Design Anthrax Antitoxin Nanosponges

La Jolla, CA. November 14, 2003 - A large, multi-center program project grant has been awarded to a team of scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), Harvard Medical School, and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies to discover and develop novel anthrax antitoxins and ways of delivering them.

The overall goal of the program is to design anti-anthrax nanosponges - antitoxin particles that could be administered to someone who has been exposed to anthrax.

"They would basically bind up all the toxin and render it ineffective," says TSRI Assistant Professor Marianne Manchester, who is the principal investigator on the grant.

The "program project" grant was awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and provides five years of funding for five projects led by investigators at these three institutions as well as common cores that will support the projects.

The Threat of Anthrax

Anthrax is a deadly disease that is caused by infection with the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It is an ancient disease - both Homer and Virgil wrote about a disease that was probably anthrax.

The Greeks named the disease anthrax, which means coal, because of the characteristic black ulcers that form on the skin of people and animals infected with the bacterium. This cutaneous form of the disease was responsible for widespread outbreaks among livestock through the centuries, and Louis Pasteur famously demonstrated the first anthrax vaccine in 1881, which helped confirm the germ theory of disease.

In the 20th century, the disease and the bacterium that causes it grew to infamy because of its potential as a biological weapon. Over the years, several countries developed weaponized B. anthracis spores, which cause inhalation anthrax. B. anthracis naturally forms spores when conditions are not right for the bacterium to replicate. When it converts into a spore, it can lie dormant inside its protective, almost indestructible protein coat. When spores of anthrax are breathed in, they are taken up through the lungs by cells called macrophages. The macrophages transport ingested spores to other parts of the body, where they germinate into bacteria and begin reproducing and making toxins.

Protecting against inhalation anthrax is a major public health priority, especially after the U.S. Postal Service attacks of late 2001. There must be an effective way to treat individuals who have been exposed to spores as a last line of defense.

Exposure to anthrax can be treated with antibiotics, but the effectiveness of antibiotics diminishes over time. If the exposure is not detected quickly enough, antibiotics alone may not be able to save the patient. This is because B. anthracis produces a virulent toxin that kills cells and, in high enough doses, can kill infected people. That's the rub - even if the infection is brought under control, the bacteria may have produced enough toxin to be lethal.

Finding a way to neutralize the effect of the toxins would be a great boon to public health preparedness against anthrax exposure. That's exactly what the team on the program project grant is trying to do.

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NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, illness from potential agents of bioterrorism, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma, and allergies. For more information, see:

Harvard Medical School is one of the world's preeminent institutions in medical education and research. The breadth and depth of its scientific and clinical disciplines are unsurpassed. The School has nearly 8,000 faculty and 17 affiliated facilities.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in La Jolla, Calif., is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and conditions, and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., founded the institute in 1960 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

The Scripps Research Institute is one of the largest, private, non-profit scientific research organizations in the world. It stands at the forefront of basic biomedical science, a vital segment of medical research that seeks to comprehend the most fundamental processes of life. TSRI is recognized for its research in molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, immunology, the neurosciences, and molecular medicine. TSRI abides by all local, state, and federal guidelines concerning environmental health and safety and biological materials.

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