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Last Updated

14 Sep 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2003


Human Genome Says It Created Anthrax Antibody


CHICAGO -- Human Genome Sciences Inc. said it created a monoclonal antibody that protected animals against a fatal toxin churned out by the deadly anthrax bacterium.

Anthrax toxins, potent poisons released by the bacterium, can evade antibiotics and make it difficult to treat people who have been exposed. In 2001, five people died and 17 others were sickened when a series of anthrax-tainted letters were sent through the postal system.

Human Genome Sciences' announcement came at the opening day of a conference here sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology. The meeting is known as ICAAC (Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy).

The Rockville, Md., company said it developed a highly specific antibody that can bind to an anthrax product called protective antigen, blocking a key step in the lethal cascade of anthrax toxins. The company said one injection completely protected laboratory rats from death due to anthrax toxins. In a separate presentation, Human Genome Sciences also reported that the monoclonal antibody improved the survival rates of rabbits and monkeys who were exposed to inhalational anthrax.

Human Genome Sciences said the results support further development of the antibody as a new anthrax treatment. Of course, human clinical trials, should it get to that point, would likely be limited to measuring safety rather than efficacy, as it is unethical to expose anyone to a bioterror agent for research purposes. In the case of potential new treatments against bioterrorism, Food and Drug Administration rules allow for the approval of drugs based on animal efficacy studies alone.

Among other presentations, researchers said that compounds similar to an old drug, quinacrine, could shed light on dealing with mad-cow disease. Quinacrine, which has been a treatment for parasitic infections such as malaria and giardiasis and other disorders, previously had been shown in the test tube to work against the infectious particles known as prions, believed to be the culprit in transmitting brain-wasting disease from infected beef to humans.

Now researchers at the University of California at San Francisco said oral quinacrine cleared another key hurdle by crossing the blood-brain barrier to reach the areas targeted by the fatal infection. The blood-brain barrier acts as the body's protective moat, which shields the brain from harm but complicates neurological-disease treatment by blocking drugs from reaching affected areas.

Quinacrine by itself merely slows but doesn't cure prion disease, said Lotus Yung, a UCSF prion researcher now with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., a unit of Novartis AG in Florham Park, N.J. The drug also can cause psychological and cardiovascular side effects. So the UCSF team is now tinkering with the structure of quinacrine to build chemical cousins that would be more potent and less toxic. "The next step is to infect animals," she said, to see if any of these compounds can halt the disease.