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Manufacture Small Molecules, Vaccines

Back to Basics

Bioterrorism came into prominence after the US anthrax attacks of 2001, but even before then there was growing recognition that we needed medical countermeasures. Back in the 1990s, some of our researchers already had grants from DARPA because there was a feeling that bioterrorism could be dangerous and that it would be wise to have some plans in place. It’s not an area that can be ignored – if anything happens we need to have measures in place.

Of course, a bioterrorist attack is just one application of infectious disease. Mother Nature has actually done far worse with all of the things she’s thrown at us. In 1968, I committed myself to a career in infectious diseases – ironically the same year that the Surgeon General of the US (William H. Stewart) said that the war on infectious diseases was over, and that it was time to work on cancer and other things. Yes, we have vaccines and antibiotics, but over 80 new infections have been spawned by nature since then.

In 1987, I moved to the medical branch of the University of Texas to be the chair of the department of pathology. The building was pretty run down and nobody liked it so we renovated it and constructed a suite of biosafety level 3 labs. At the time, it was considered quite radical and many people asked what in the world they would be used for… And yet, those level 3 labs were constantly oversubscribed. I recruited a lot of great scientists, including the two top virologists in arthropod borne viruses from Yale University. In time, I realized that we needed a biosafety level 4 laboratory. When 9/11 and the anthrax attacks occurred – and interest in bioterrorism countermeasures increased – we were able to work with anything.

One of the biggest potential bioterrorism threats is anthrax because the bacteria is not difficult to cultivate. There is a story of one scientist who was waiting for permission to obtain anthrax from a government facility, but it was taking too long, so he just went out and dug up some soil and isolated it from there. Most bioterrorism agents, except for smallpox which has been eradicated, do exist in nature. Anthrax can be turned to spores, which are very hardy and stable. The size of the spores is just right to get deep into the lungs when inhaled.

There are also other threats that are particularly terrifying because it only takes one or two cases to bring an entire city to a halt. Ebola is one such threat and even the name can strike terror in the public and cause widespread panic. Like anthrax, Ebola could be isolated from a natural source – admittedly, it would take a lot of effort, but terrorists have proven before that they can be both dedicated and resourceful. Some labs, of course, have these viruses stored, but the security is immense.

At the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas, we have a great deal of experience in discovering emerging infectious diseases and conducting basic research into the mechanisms of disease – and this is crucial if you want to develop a target for therapy or antigens that stimulate vaccine induced immunity, or even a really good diagnostic test. However, we keep all of our research very much focused on delivering countermeasures rather than science for the sake of science. Here are just a few examples of our endeavors:

  • Alexander Bukreyev has a project on aerosol vaccination for Ebola.
  • Dennis Bente is developing a vaccine candidate against Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic fever – probably the most severe manifestation of hemorrhagic fever.
  • Robert Tesh developed an animal model for monkeypox, a potential bioterrorism agent because it is a relative of smallpox (there was also an outbreak of monkeypox in 2003 in the Midwest US).
  • C J Peters has characterized a vaccine that he developed when he was at Fort Detrick for Rift Valley Fever and with collaborators has been performing mutation analysis towards vaccine development.
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About the Author
David Walker

David Walker is Executive Director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases based at the University of Texas.

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