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Scientists Describe Secrets of Anthrax Toxin - 2001-10-24

As law enforcement authorities intensify their search for those responsible for lethal anthrax outbreaks in the United States, scientists say they've figured out how the bacterium works inside the body. The discoveries could result in new drugs to treat anthrax disease.

Because of the urgency of the anthrax outbreaks, the scientific journal Nature Tuesday released two papers ahead of their scheduled publication. In one study, scientists identify a long sought-after doorway, or receptor, on the surface of cells that anthrax uses to enter and then destroy the cells.

Using this information, investigators at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin in Madison devised a protein that blocks anthrax's entry into cells.

In the second study, researchers describe the bacterium's mode of attack once inside cells. Robert Liddington of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California led an international research team that uncovered the structure of so-called "lethal factor" the part of anthrax that signals the production of toxin. If nothing is done to interrupt a chain reaction, Mister Liddington says the anthrax toxin gets out of control, "leading ultimately to release of these messenger molecules and septic shock."

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases praised the studies. At a news conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the work is likely to result in the development of new drugs to treat anthrax disease. "Now that we have this very important finding," he said, "I think it's incumbent upon us to do as much as we can to translate that into something that would be for the public health."

Already researchers are discussing their findings with a number of pharmaceutical companies. The hope is to come up with drugs that block the action of anthrax in the body.