NAU students help track anthrax in European infections

Biology students from Northern Arizona University aided in the investigation of a series of anthrax deaths among European heroin users beginning in 2009.

The first deaths were reported in Scotland, but eventually cases of anthrax infection among intravenous heroin users surfaced in England, Germany, France and Denmark. It was initially feared that the contamination may have been an act of terrorism, according to Wired.

NAU professor and director of the university's Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics Paul Keim, soon joined the investigation.

As part of its role in tracing the source of the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, NAU's center had collected the world's largest catalogue of Bacillus anthracis. Keim's biology students immediately began mapping the genetic sequences of 34 samples from the European cases. The samples matched each other and were closely related to two known strains found in Turkey.

"One of the most powerful conclusions we can make in forensic analysis is to say what it's not," Keim said.

The U.K. investigative team was pleased to learn that the strains did not match ones used in weapons testing off the coast of Scotland in the 1940s or the Ames strain used in the U.S. attacks.

Keim said that his investigation pointed toward naturally-occurring contamination as the likely source and not terrorism.

Anthrax spores may have entered the batch of heroin near its source. The drug is often cut with bone meal or wrapped in goat skins for transportation. In either case, the animal products used could have been tainted.

Anthrax spores are highly resilient and can lay dormant for years on end. No new cases were reported in 2011, but in the summer of 2012 a new series of infections occurred. Public health officials in Europe fear more infections are possible.