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Studying how agents like anthrax, smallpox affect lungs
Scripps Howard News Service


June 12, 2005

Albuquerque, N.M. - Biological weapons are like wild animals that have been tamed, trained and genetically enhanced with extra claws and spikes.

Scientists and doctors have decades and, in some cases, centuries of experience in fighting the less dangerous versions of such creatures, like plague and anthrax bacteria. But the really scary stuff - tamed, trained and enhanced versions that can attack from the air and infest the lungs - poses a perplexing problem.

Scientists and doctors have little experience or information to guide them in protecting people from bioweapons. But a new, $15 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the University of New Mexico and Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute could change that, said Rick Lyons, a UNM Health Sciences Center professor.

The grant will let the two organizations study how agents like anthrax, plague and smallpox affect the lungs, Lyons said.

"Basically all these bugs are out there in the wild right now - most of them here in New Mexico," Lyons said. "We get plague and tularemia (bacteria) cases every year. What we don't know now, though, is what these things will do if they attack us in a different way. We never thought in the past they'd be aimed at our lungs, but in biological weapons they are. We just want to understand it more."

The organizations will use lung-cell culture and rodent studies to see how airborne bacteria affect the body.

"We've actually been working with these bacteria as a health problem and things like hantavirus for several years," Lyons said. "Things like anthrax normally infect the skin, which isn't such a big deal. But by understanding what they do to the lungs and knowing how the lungs work to defend themselves, we should be able to find better ways to fight enhanced forms of these bacteria."

Biological weapons aren't as far from reality as they might seem. The United States had an active program working with anthrax, plague and tularemia through the 1960s. The former Soviet Union had one, too, until the 1990s.

Scientists and health workers have long been concerned that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some weapons left those programs and got into the hands of terrorists or rogue countries willing to use them in an attack, said Robert Rubin, president of the Lovelace program.

Understanding what such weapons would do to the population is a way to protect people from some of the more deadly consequences, Rubin said.

"We want to look at some of the things the immune system does to protect itself," Rubin said. "One of its first response mechanisms is mucus, and we want to see how that and other mechanisms prevent the spread of these sorts of bacteria or viruses throughout he body."

And Lyons is quick to emphasize that this is not a weapons-building program. The point is to help scientists put up a shield that will stop such attacks from doing deadly damage.

"We hope by studying this we can find ways to make vaccines better and enhance cells so they can fight these bugs more effectively," Lyons said. "This work will also translate into more common medical problems like streptococcus or staphylococcus. It will really help us fight all infections."


Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at


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