Ricin, anthrax and bioterrorism: Researching the threat

Bioterrorism is a real threat that is being researched at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
By Greg Elwell Published: June 11, 2013
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Bioterrorism is back in the news after letters containing the toxin ricin were sent to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month, a month after similar attempts were made to poison President Barack Obama and officials in Mississippi.

But even when bioterrorism isn't being discussed on the evening news, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Mark Coggeshall, Ph.D., is still working to understand and fight another threat: Anthrax.

After letters containing ricin were sent to Obama, Bloomberg, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sadie Holland, a judge in Lee County, Miss., it sparked new fears about bioterrorist attacks. But science can't just react to what's in the news — it has to follow the course of discovery, said Coggeshall, who holds the Robert S. Kerr, Jr. Endowed Chair in Cancer Research.

“I've been studying anthrax since 2003, but before that I was doing research on inflammation in autoimmune diseases like lupus,” he said. “It's a pretty ideal transition, really, because inhalation anthrax causes overwhelming inflammation.”

Though anthrax isn't as hot a topic now as it once was, his research continues, because the threat hasn't gone away, he said.

“Ricin is a really ineffective way to cause terror. You actually have to inject it,” he said. “With anthrax, you just inhale it and you're sick. The worst part of the sickness is you don't know until it's too late. As a bioterrorism agent, it's ideal.”

In 2001, letters containing concentrated anthrax were sent to news media and the offices of then-Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, resulting in 22 infections and five deaths. This is a form of inhalation anthrax, in which spores are cultivated, dried and prepared. It takes the inhalation of at least 2,500 spores to cause an infection.

Once inhaled, anthrax spores move from the lungs to the lymph nodes, where they begin multiplying and creating proteins that attack human cells.