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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Associated Press, December 3, 2001.

Scientist Battles Biological Warfare

By LAURAN NEERGAARD, Associated Press

MANASSAS, Va. (AP) -- Dr. Ken Alibek has a radical theory about anthrax: What finally kills victims is bacteria-caused cellular sewage clogging the bloodstream, not the anthrax toxin typically blamed.

While other researchers hunt antitoxins, Alibek is building filters to scrub anthrax patients' blood clean.

The dialysis-like theory challenges scientific dogma. But the government and some top researchers are listening -- because no one in the nation is believed to have more experience handling anthrax than Alibek, once the Soviet Union's second-in-command of developing germ weapons.

The kindly demeanor of this soft-spoken scientist, wearing a rumpled suit and weary smile, belies his past as a Red Army colonel who by his own count helped create enough anthrax-armed missiles to have killed millions.

But ask what prompts his filter theory and Alibek casually makes a startling claim: A similar approach once saved a Soviet colleague from certain death from Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic fever similar to the dreaded Ebola.

It is such untapped knowledge that persuaded the U.S. government to give this biowarrior-turned-biodefender $12 million in grants to hunt antidotes for anthrax and other killers.

"This work is sort of, I would say, remorse,'' Alibek, a physician by training, said in a recent interview. ``I need to find solutions which would make biological weapons ineffective.''

Alibek hunts solutions with 35 scientists at the small biotechnology company he heads, Hadron Advanced Biosystems, in this Washington suburb. It is a subsidiary of defense contractor Hadron Inc.

Germ-warfare specialists say no other lab claims a scientist with such day-to-day expertise in bioterror agents.

In one project, the lab is trying to create a nasal spray that might rev up the immune system to fend off numerous agents if used after an attack. Triggering this ``nonspecific immunity'' is a controversial idea, but one that several other laboratories also are exploring.

For anthrax specifically, Hadron is doing ``very careful'' research into ways to block the bacterium at the molecular level, said Dr. C.J. Peters, former chief of special pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Right now you take your antibiotic and take your chances,'' said Peters, a microbiologist now at the University of Texas, Galveston. If such experiments ultimately work, "you could take antibiotics later and later and still survive.''

Alibek, a Kazakh by birth once known as Kanatjan Alibekov, spent 15 years with Biopreparat, the vast Soviet germ weapons program. He defected in 1992, convincing U.S. intelligence that the Soviet program was larger and more sophisticated than previously known.

In his 1999 book "Biohazard,'' Alibek wrote that Soviet scientists bioengineered germ weapons because they thought Americans were. He described a 1991 Soviet inspection of Fort Detrick, Md., that persuaded him that was not true. The Army program, which actually hunted for vaccines, had two anthrax specialists, compared with Biopreparat's 2,000.

Now instead of brewing ever more potent anthrax, Alibek is studying just how the bacterium acts inside the body, and how to thwart it.

First, immune cells called macrophages gobble up anthrax. But the bacteria then paralyze those cells, buying time to multiply, Alibek said. Delaying that process would give antibiotics more time to work. Hadron is beginning animal studies in the hunt for drugs to do that.

Once people are sick, the common theory is that anthrax-produced toxin actually kills them. Antibiotics taken early enough can kill the germs before too much toxin is produced, but they have little effect later.

Alibek's research concludes that late-stage anthrax is not toxin-induced, but a complex form of sepsis: an overwhelming bloodstream infection complicated by biological sewage -- dead cells and cell parts that in turn trigger production in inflammation -- and shock-causing proteins.

Alibek created a prototype filter to cleanse blood of this mess, using a chemical absorption method called chromatography. So far, lab testing shows it can filter out one major inflammatory source; the challenge now is to figure out which additional ones need catching.

"It's not simple,'' Alibek cautioned. "There are too many mediators of sepsis. ... But we think we can do it.''