Research Center Responds to a Critical Defense Need

Posted: June 18, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Charles Bailey
Charles Bailey

Every day Charles Bailey has to think like a terrorist, imagining devious plots and coming up with ways to circumvent them. As the executive director of Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, it’s his job.

The center, located on the university’s Prince William Campus, was created in 2002 to address the challenges to national and international security posed by the threat of biological terrorism. A large part of the work is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

“We have to look at things from the terrorist’s point of view,” says Bailey. He and his team of scientists are always seeking new ways to detect and treat biological threats.

Before coming to Mason, Bailey was commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where he led medical and scientific research programs dedicated to the development of new forms of medical protection against biological weapons and other infectious diseases.

The Mechanisms of Anthrax

Working with Bailey is Serguei Popov, who may be the perfect scientist for the job. Before coming to the United States in 1993, Popov was a project leader in the former Soviet Union’s offensive biological weapons program, where he was recognized by the Soviet government for his outstanding achievements in microbiological research.

Popov’s current research focuses on the mechanisms of anthrax pathogenesis and host-pathogen interactions. His work with anthrax in particular has led to some interesting findings: the way mice respond to anthrax has many characteristic features of physiological stress.

In many cases, a host response to a pathogen, which could be a virus, a bacterium, or a fungus, is useful because it helps fight infection. For example, a light fever in flu patients indicates that their immune system recognizes the virus and is trying to eliminate it. But if the fever is too high, the patient may die.

Popov wanted to know to what extent a patient’s response to anthrax infection could be responsible for his or her own death. To answer this question, Popov used anthrax spores of human vaccine strain, which kills mice but is harmless to people and many other animals. He found that infected mice treated to reduce the amount of cellular stress caused by infection demonstrated a dramatic increase in survival rates. In some cases, when Popov used a combination therapy with antibiotic, survival rates have been as high as 90 percent; antibiotic alone protected only 30 percent of animals.

Implications for Treatment and Antidotes

According to Bailey, one of the problems with anthrax is that scientists still don’t understand how it kills.

“The organism that causes anthrax is a very unusual pathogen in that it can survive for long periods, years, outside of a living host. With most other pathogens, when the host dies, the pathogens that caused the death also die,” says Bailey. “In nature, anthrax infections in cattle are almost always fatal, but this event simply stimulates the pathogen to change into spores, which ensures its survival.”

An anthrax infection produces a toxin, which was termed “lethal toxin” when it was discovered in 1954. It was long believed that this toxin killed the host. Popov’s research has shown that the cause of death is not so simple. “The known toxin is not the only culprit, but it plays its specific role early in the process,” he says.

According to Bailey, most people who die from an anthrax infection suffer from an unspecific organ failure. “Nobody knows the cause of death,” Bailey says. “There is damage to the lungs, liver, and other organs, but nothing specific. Pathology cannot find any particular cause.”

Bailey calls the 45 percent survival rate in the 2001 U.S. anthrax attacks remarkable. “The mortality rate [of inhalation anthrax] is normally 90 percent or above. The survivors of the anthrax mailings received the undivided attention of the medical staff in the finest medical facilities.” His concern is that the victims of a much larger-scale (thousands of patients) attack wouldn’t be nearly as lucky in that their individualized attention would be greatly diluted.

That’s where Popov’s work comes in. If his findings and survival rates can translate to humans, it could change the way doctors treat anthrax infections and help develop possible antidotes.

The center is also home to major medical research projects that focus on tularemia, headed by Monique van Hoek, and HIV, headed by Yuntao Wu. Researchers at the center also are working on a nonmedical project, headed by Victor Morozov, that focuses on environmental detection of agents, what Bailey calls detection of “an unnatural event.” Such an event could be the release of some kind of biological agent into the air, water or food supply, he says.

In 2005, Mason was awarded $25 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, for the construction of a regional biocontainment laboratory. The center will use the new lab in the development and evaluation of new diagnostics, vaccines and therapies against biological threat pathogens. The center is expected to break ground on this facility later this year.

Write to at