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Hepatitis drug may help anthrax victims

University Of Chicago : 17 February, 2004  (Technical Article)
A drug already being used to fight hepatitis B may also help patients infected with anthrax. The drug, Gilead Sciences Inc.'s adefovir dipivoxil, blocks the toxic edema factor, one of the two compounds that make anthrax so deadly, the researchers said.
Scientists have stepped up efforts to find new treatments for anthrax after anthrax-laced letters were mailed to the U.S. Senate and to media outlets in 2001, killing five people and infecting at least 16.

'We all hope that the bioterror attacks of 2001 never recur but if something happens, it would be nice to have better treatment options,' Wei-Jen Tang of the University of Chicago, who led the study, said in a statement.

Anthrax usually causes a skin infection that is easily treated with antibiotics. When inhaled, antibiotics can also treat it, but by the time a patient shows symptoms it is usually too late to save the victim.

This is because anthrax bacteria pump out two kinds of toxin. Even after antibiotics kill off the bacteria, the toxins remain in the system.

'These toxins pack a one-two punch that makes inhalational anthrax extremely harmful,' Tang said.

'For the first time, we have a clinically approved drug that, at least in tissue culture, completely eradicates half of that toxic team, and does it at non-toxic doses.'

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tang and colleagues said they were following up on their earlier findings about the three-dimensional structure of edema factor.

They discovered that it works by hijacking a normal cellular process and forcing it into overdrive.

Craig Gibbs of Gilead knew that adefovir, sold under the brand name Hepsera, acted on a similar metabolic pathway. Adefovir interferes with an enzyme used by the hepatitis B virus to make copies of itself. Gibbs collaborated with Tang's group to test the drug against anthrax in lab dishes.

It blocks the edema factor toxin. The way it works could also prove useful against the bacteria that cause whooping cough, plague and some forms of pneumonia, the researchers said. All are considered potential bioterrorism agents.

'This is a classic example of serendipity in science,' said Paula Flicker, a biophysicist at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which helps pay for the research.

'Curiosity-driven studies of (this) important enzyme unexpectedly led directly to possible treatments for anthrax.'
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