February 5, 2008

C.U. Research Works To End Bioterrorism

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While U.S. troops battle terrorism abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, scientists at the Weill-Cornell Medical College are doing their part a little closer to home — strengthening America’s defense against threats of bioterror.
Since the anthrax attacks of 2001, a fear of bioterrorism has heightened the need for research on treatment options to prevent potential catastrophes. With new developments at Weill-Cornell, however, two potentially deadly viruses — Hendra and Nipah — may no longer pose a danger to national security.
The two viruses were discovered in the ’90s when outbreaks killed over 100 people in Australia and Asia, primarily due to transmission from close contact with infected animals, according to the World Health Organization.
The inhalation of microscopic pathogens is another mode of infection, the most likely mode to be used in an attack, according to Anne Moscona, senior researcher for the study. Moscona said that viruses spread by inhalation are even more of a concern due to the possibility of rapid and widespread contagion.
“Because these viruses are so fatal and transmissible, they were placed on the [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’] bioterrorism threat list,” she said.
Similar to the West Nile virus, Hendra and Nipah can cause severe cases of encephalitis, a condition where inflammation of the brain often leads to death. Diagnosis of these viruses is difficult due to the strikingly similar symptoms for Hendra, Nipah and influenza, which include aching muscles and high fever.
Working with previous research done on parainfluenza, a closely associated virus that often causes colds and pneumonia, Moscona’s team developed a treatment that prevents Hendra and Nipah from going to work in the body by blocking fusion sites in cells. The current drug is effective for short-term use only, but according to Moscona, collaborative research between Weill-Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will soon produce a longer lasting alternative.
Although cases of bioterrorism in the United States and around the globe have been absent in recent years, research like Moscona’s continues to be crucial for protecting Americans against potentially disastrous attacks, said Amy Kudwa, deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.
According to Kudwa, the DHS has been consistently invested in developing defense programs against threats of bioterrorism through a number of interagency initiatives and departmental programs.
“We have a very large portfolio,” she said. “This is certainly something we’re mindful of.”
BioWatch, one of the main DHS programs of this kind, serves to detect and respond to bioterrorist attacks by monitoring air samples in metropolitan areas around the nation and establishing emergency plans in case of a threat. Stockpiling drugs like Moscona’s will help prepare the DHS for the possibility of Hendra and Nipah outbreaks, should they be used in a terrorist attack.
Despite Kudwa’s support for an initiative she believes will protect many Americans, the Bush Administration announced yesterday that BioWatch will see a significant budget decrease in 2009. While the proposed budget includes $50.5 billion for the DHS, BioWatch will be allocated only $34.5 million, $50.5 million less than last year’s estimated operating expenses.
Pending budget approval by Congress, the Administration hopes to use the relatively small budget to “upgrade the BioWatch Monitoring System, increase its investment in Gen 3 – the next-generation BioWatch technology – to enable the BioWatch system to become fully automated and reduce detection times [of dangerous biological agents] to as little as four hours,” according to the White House website.
However, Moscona said that monitoring programs like BioWatch aren’t the only important defense against bioterrorism. She emphasized the need for investment in lab research, especially basic research, to develop treatments for dangerous agents considered to be potential threats. Through fundamental research on related viruses, Moscona’s team was able to efficiently produce drugs for Hendra and Nipah.
“The best long-term strategy is to continue funding science and basic research,” she said.