Researchers create screening system for new anthrax drugs; thousands of chemicals studied

Wednesday, July 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

In a development that could boost anthrax research, scientists have created a way to rapidly screen thousands of drugs to ferret out those capable of disarming one of the bacteria's deadly toxins.

The screening system devised by Italian researchers has already identified two chemical compounds that inhibit the ``lethal factor'' protein that anthrax unleashes on the body's immune system.

Those two compounds blocked the toxic effect in mouse cells tested in the laboratory, but have yet to be tried in living animals.

``It's just one step. It's too early to say whether we have anything of use,'' said Cesare Montecucco, a professor of general pathology at the University of Padua in Italy.

The findings are reported in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. Scientists in New Jersey have developed a similar system, a Harvard expert said.

Montecucco said his team is collaborating with the Pasteur Institute in Lyon, France, on plans to test the two compounds on anthrax-infected animals.

Other scientists said the screening system's primary importance will be in permitting pharmaceutical companies to quickly scour their vast ``drug libraries'' for potential anthrax-fighting compounds to aid in the development of defenses against bioterrorism.

``This will allow them to test all the drugs they've created in the past 100 years, and any new ones they're working on, to see if they might block this toxin,'' said Phil Hanna, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Automated systems combining robots, computers and special plates lined with rows of tiny wells for experiments have been used for years to quickly test the effect of chemical compounds on cellular structures.

The team's findings come two months after scientists with Merck Research Laboratories of Rahway, N.J., described a similar system, said anthrax researcher R. John Collier at the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Both systems provide anthrax researchers with a useful new tool in their hunt for ways to disarm anthrax in the wake of last fall's deadly anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five people, Collier said.