Science & Technology
Researchers Find Possible Way to Block Anthrax

Contact Cheryl Pon at [email protected]

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UC Berkeley researchers have discovered what may possibly lead them to blocking the hazardous effects of anthrax on the human body in the future.

In a paper published Nov. 28 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers presented their discovery of what may be the Achilles’ heel of the anthrax bacteria.

The team was composed of researchers at UC Berkeley, University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.

Humans contract the disease through skin contact, inhalation, and consumption by handling products from contaminated animals or being exposed to anthrax spores.

Anthrax releases a toxin that kills the human cells and gains energy from the cells’ iron supply. It is nearly always fatal.

The researchers originally planned to find how anthrax leeches off the iron supply of their human hosts to grow and reproduce, said Ken Raymond, one of the lead researchers and a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley.

But along the way they discovered a trick that the bacteria uses to fool the human immune system.

Two small molecules known as siderophores, bacillibactin and petrobactin, within the anthrax bacteria are produced as a parasite to the human body, depriving it of iron.

These siderophores are thus the food source of the anthrax, allowing its rapid growth and reproduction.

According to Raymond, the study conducted by the team shows why two siderophores are key to ensuring the success of the anthrax in penetrating the immune system.

The human immune system works to defend itself against the first siderophore, which acts as a decoy while the second successfully bypasses the body’s defense, he said.

Many other bacteria, such as E. coli also produce siderophores to gain iron from their hosts.

The team found that siderocalin, a human immune protein that binds and transports iron, effectively wards off bacillibactin through experimenting with anthrax bacteria extracts.

Due to the structure of molecules, the extracts could be examined without threat of contamination.

"Humans make a protein called siderocalin to defend against bacteria in the continual arms race between pathogen and host," Raymond said.

According to Raymond, siderocalin is the first example of a protein produced by the human immune system that alters the bacteria's successful uptake of iron.

The study showed that petrobactin, unlike bacillibactin, plays a “stealth” role in iron scavenging, he said.

Petrobactin is unique to anthrax and does not exist in any other bacteria.

Currently, the human immune system does not have a successful defense mechanism against petrobactin.

Raymond’s research team is seeking ways in which an adequate defense can be designed to successfully thwart the stealth siderophore.

One possible method is to design anthrax sensors that detect petrobactin.

Raymond’s study and further research holds the potential key to developing anti-anthrax drugs in the future that specifically target the production of petrobactin, or iron uptake.


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