Health Watch -- Biological Weapons

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Part of the war against terrorism is being fought in the research laboratory.

As we worry about the global threat of terrorism, one concern is that terrorists will use biological weapons. We saw a couple of years ago during the anthrax scare how dangerous biological agents can be when they’re used as weapons. Now researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have received major grants from the National Institutes of Health to study pathogens that can be used as biological weapons. The researchers will work to better understand how these pathogens work, as well as developing vaccines, antibodies and treatments.

One major focus of research will be the disease tularemia, a deadly bacterial infection that’s easier to use as a weapon than anthrax. Dr. Michael Norgard, UT Southwestern’s chairman of microbiology, says very little is known about the bacteria that cause this infection. It’s so highly infectious that just examining an open culture plate in the laboratory could be enough exposure to cause infection. The danger of working with the bacteria is one reason scientists know so little about it. UT Southwestern researchers hope to learn better how it works to attack human cells so they can eventually find ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the infection.

Other research will focus on finding a vaccine for ricin, a deadly toxin that’s been used as a biological weapon. Researchers are also working on drugs to treat Lassa fever, a viral disease that occurs in West Africa that can also be used as a weapon. In addition, researchers are finding ways to fight anthrax and the plague.