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UK Institution Gathers Bacteria Sequence Info in Effort to Prevent Deadly Outcomes of Bioterrorist Attacks

NEW YORK, Oct. 5 – A British institution involved in sequencing the bacterium that causes the deadly bubonic plague said Friday it expects to finish decoding a number of other bacteria in the near future as part of its plan to develop detection devices and antigens to ward off the effects of potentially deadly bioterrorist attacks.

“Many of the [sequencing] projects are coming towards completion,” Rick Titball, the technical manager for microbiology at the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, told GenomeWeb. “The next step will be to apply the information to develop antimicrobial detection systems, antigens, and vaccines.”

On Thursday, GenomeWeb reported that the Science and Technology Laboratory, the Sanger Center, St. Barholomew's Hospital, Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine jointly completed the sequence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, or “black death.” The Science and Technology Lab at Porton Down is currently testing a vaccine for the bubonic plague, which wiped out between 20 million and 25 million people in Europe, or one-third of that continent's population in the fourteenth century. The illness still affects about 3,000 people annually worldwide, researchers say. 

Titball said the Science and Technology Laboratory had additional collaborations with the Sanger Center of Cambridge, UK, the Institute for Genomic Research of Rockville, Md., and other institutions to sequence bacteria including  Bacillus anthracis , Francisella tularensis, Clostridium perfringens, and  Burkholderia pseudomallei. 

Bacillus Anthracis  causes anthrax, an acute disease that can be transmitted through the skin or the gastrointestinal system or by inhalation; Francisella tularensis  causes tularaemia, a plague-like illness;   Clostridium perfringens  causes food poisoning ; and   Burkholderia pseudomallei can lead to melioidosis, an often fatal infection.

Scientists fear that such bacteria could be used by terrorist organizations looking to reap more havoc following the September 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon and left more than 5,000 people dead or missing. 

“Certainly there are a number of bacteria that would be considered more likely to be used [in bioterrorism],” Titball said.

Like Yersinia pestis , Titball said that the bacteria his facility are sequencing are of particular concern because they are relatively easy to grow and are capable of causing serious and potentially fatal diseases, which in some cases may spread from person to person.

Titball said that he could not offer an estimate for how much money his organization was spending on sequencing these bacteria since many of the projects are collaborative and thus receive funding from a number of sources.

He noted that ideally scientists would be able to develop antigens and good detection devices, which could be deployed quickly in response to an attack. The problem with vaccines, Titball said, is that they have to be given prior to an attack. Widespread distribution of such vaccines would only make sense in the eventuality that “bioterrorist problems roll out of control,” he said.

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