Chemistry professor's work could lead to anthrax cure

A Wichita State University chemistry professor has been making headway in his research to save the lives of anthrax victims.

Associate chemistry professor Jim Bann, working with students in his WSU lab, has developed a new amino acid that could prevent the deadly toxin from killing its victim during an anthrax attack.

Bann received a patent for the invention, which could be developed into a new anthrax vaccine or antitoxin, in June.

Anthrax is a disease caused by spore-forming bacteria from infected animals, wool, meat or hides.

It is most commonly a skin disease, but it also can be contracted from eating raw or undercooked infected meat, or through inhalation. If untreated, it often is fatal.

A vaccine exists to prevent anthrax. Bann said his new amino acid offers the potential to stop the disease after it is contracted.

And, while side effects of the anthrax vaccine can kill in rare cases, his amino acid isn't likely to produce complications, he said.

Bann started his research in 2005 in an effort to find out how a protective antigen in the anthrax toxin creates a pore inside cells that allows toxic factors to enter.

Bann and his team introduced the new amino acid, fluorohistidine, into the protective antigen and found that it blocked steps in the toxicity process thereby protecting cells.

The patent Bann received means that anybody wanting to use the idea of fluorohistidine as a vaccine or as a therapeutic against anthrax would need a license from Wichita State, and WSU would receive a share of the profits from any sale if it becomes commercially available.

Bann said the government could be interested in using the idea as well and award a contract to WSU.

A drug company also could pay for a license, or buy the patent outright, he said.

But all of that is years in the future.

It can take 10 years to work through the process required to develop a vaccine, he said.

"These types of experiments go through pretty rigorous national guidelines," Bann said,

"We've been trying to get drug companies interested in this," he said. "The problem is you have to go through an animal model, and actually inject the protective antigen into animals, and these animals would have to be exposed to anthrax to see if they are protected."

Bann said Russ Middaugh, an expert in protective antigen vaccine formulation at the University of Kansas, will do a series of tests to determine whether fluorohistidine can be used on animals.

The plan is to take Middaugh's data to a drug company to get funding for the animal studies, which can cost at least $250,000, or to use it to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Health.

Bann's work has received interest from a couple of drug companies, but they wanted to see animal studies before going forward, he said.

Bann has published two articles with other scientists about the work in the peer-reviewed journal Biochemistry, and a third article is coming out.

Response has been favorable.

"He has done some nice work," said John Collier, a leading anthrax researcher at Harvard. "It contributes to the overall effort that's going on in a number of labs."