The anthrax bug swiftly disarms the sentinels of the body's immune system, hampering the body's ability to defend against the potentially lethal bioterrorism agent, a new study shows. The results suggest medical treatment to boost the immune system at the earliest stages of infection could counteract the toxin that anthrax produces in its initial attack. Antibiotics, like Cipro, could be used in concert to kill the bacteria themselves.
The federally supported study began in the months following the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five persons. In those attacks, which remain unsolved, one of the first victims was sick for days before he was seen by doctors, who suspected a case of the flu. His white blood count, a sign of bacterial infection, was only slightly elevated. That suggests the anthrax bacteria were able to fly under the watchful radar of his immune system and proliferate.
As the 2001 anthrax crisis spread, physicians wondered how the weaponized bug was working. In the new study using mice, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health provide some fundamental answers. They found that anthrax toxin targets front-line immune agents called dendritic cells. Once the bacteria disarm the dendritic cells, they can evade the immune system's other defenders and spread unchecked.