Bio Warfare's New Recruits

VACCINES COULD PROTECT SOLDIERS AGAINST INSIDIOUSLY altered strains of anthrax and other microbes. But the vaccines must be deployed quickly. With today's tools, it could take scientists months to culture some virulent new strain, choose a protein target, purify it, and incorporate it into a vaccine.

Help in speeding that process may come from tiny Siga Pharmaceuticals Inc. in New York City, which recently received an $800,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for vaccine development. Siga's technique involves attaching foreign proteins such as antigens and antitoxins to harmless bacteria that normally inhabit mucous membranes of the mouth and nasal passage--the primary gateways to infection. This method of attaching proteins is the product of 30 years of research at Rockefeller University by Siga's co-founder Vincent A. Fischetti--head of Rockefeller's bacterial pathogenesis lab--and by his partner, Oregon State University biologist Dennis E. Hruby.

Ultimately, within a week of identifying a pathogen on a battlefield, scientists should be able to select an appropriate host bacterium in the nose or mouth and rejigger its genes. The host could then secrete an antigen in the soldier's tissues to prompt an immune response in case of a viral attack. Or the bugs could be forced to secrete enzymes that would break down botulin or other toxins.

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