This adapter molecule links to the pathogen on one side, and a red blood cell on the other. As the blood cell passes through the liver, it releases the pathogen and cells called macrophages destroy the virus.
Source: Ronald Taylor.

  Biological warfare

One red-blooded vacuum cleaner
Ronald Taylor of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville is dreaming up another way to act hostile toward biological warfare viruses. But instead of gumming their zippers, as Steven Kornguth is doing, he's trying to vacuum them from the blood and deliver them to detox centers in the liver.

this diagram 'splains it all for you
Normally, the body fights pathogens by marking them with antibodies -- specialized molecules that recognize specific disease-causing agents. Antibodies form after animals are exposed to the disease, or to a vaccine that mimics the disease.

Antibodies mark the pathogen (virus or bacteria) for attack by various parts of the cellular immune system. Sometimes antibodies also link the pathogens to red blood cells which haul them through the bloodstream to the liver for destruction.

In case you're feeling sorry for the liver, it's just doing its job -- disassembling toxic chemicals and destroying pathogens. And don't worry about the red blood cells either. These life-giving cells are used to hauling plenty of garbage -- such as carbon dioxide and other byproducts of metabolism.

But antibodies only work in people who have been exposed to the pathogen, and we can count on perpetrators of biological warfare to select novel bugs. Faced with this dilemma, Taylor began wondering if he could use the process of red blood cell disposal even in people who haven't been exposed to the agent.

Adaptable molecules
To do this, he constructed molecules with two special-purpose ends. On one end, he placed an antibody to a test virus. On the other end, he attached a structure that connects to a molecule on the surface of red blood cells.

The resulting microscopic adapters could join pathogens to red blood cells. It's like an adapter you'd use to connect a round computer cable to a square socket.

In a series of animal experiments (see "Bispecific Monoclonal Antibody Complexes ..." in the bibliography), Taylor and colleagues found signs of success. Since the virus (an innocuous version of a mammalian virus) did not cause disease, they traced it with a radioactive label. Within an hour or two, the radioactivity (and hence the level of virus) dropped in the blood but rose in the liver. One day later, the level of radiation in the liver had fallen, where, according to further experiments, the virus had been destroyed.

Taylor says the technique of removing unwanted cells by joining them to red blood cells with a two-ended "adapter" molecule could also fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, HIV, and even cancer.

But before you ask Taylor to cure what ails you, remember that this is not yet a treatment. "I'm very enthusiastic about the long-range potential of this technology," he says, "but if someone thinks I have a method that can cure their disease today, they should understand we're still in the basic research stage. However, I hope that eventually it can be used successfully to treat a variety of diseases."


 
Update
5 JUNE 1998. On June 1, U.S. public health authorities told Congress that they are not ready for an act of biological terrorism. The experts noted that bio-war agents are not familiar to doctors and that public health authorities rely on antiquated technology. About half of all public health departments do not use e-mail, which could be handy for rapid exchange of information. The federal funding that is available is going largely to the National Guard, while the first line of defense against biological weapons is doctors, clinics and hospitals.

At a Senate hearing on the matter, "witness after witness described shortages of trained medical personnel, the lack of high-security laboratories in which lethal, highly contagious microbes can be tested and identified, public health clinics with rotary phones and no computers or ready access to disease data banks," The New York Times reported. (See "U.S. Unprepared..." in the bibliography)


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Read all about it: bio-war bibliography!


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