University of Illinois to develop antibiotics against potential bioterrorism agents

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have received a $4 million federal grant to develop new antibiotics to treat anthrax, tularemia and plague, the university announced Nov. 10.

Anthrax, tularemia and plague are caused by naturally occurring bacteria classified as "category-A" agents that could be used in bioterrorism and biowarfare.

These microorganisms pose a risk to national security because they can be easily transmitted and disseminated, result in high mortality, have potential major public health impact and could cause panic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These infections can be treated with current antibiotics, but none is ideal, says Michael Johnson, professor and director of the UIC Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and lead researcher on the two-year grant.

Only one antibiotic, doxycycline, can be used to treat more than one of the three diseases, he said.

Worse, it may be possible for terrorists to develop multi-drug resistant strains for all three diseases, Johnson said.

"Our goal is to develop an advanced series of broad-spectrum antibacterial 'lead' compounds that are safe, efficacious and that can be taken orally," Johnson said.

Anthrax infection can occur by absorption through the skin, by inhalation, or through the gastrointestinal tract. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.

Tularemia, or rabbit fever, has a low fatality rate if treated, but can be incapacitating. It can be contracted through contact, inhalation, ingestion of contaminated water, or by insect bites.

Plague is caused by a bacterium found in rodents and their fleas in many areas of the world. The typical sign of the most common form of human plague is a swollen and tender lymph gland, accompanied by pain. About 14 percent of plague cases in the U.S. are fatal, according to the CDC.

Funding for the research is through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It is the largest grant UIC has received through the act and is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health.

Johnson's collaborators include Dr. James Cook, chief of infectious diseases in the UIC College of Medicine; Andrew Mesecar, professor in the UIC Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology; and David Case, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University.

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