UT researchers create drug for anthrax

Areeba Khwaja

UT researchers have created a drug that can fight inhalational anthrax — the most deadly form of anthrax.

Anthrax is a disease caused by a bacterium that releases lethal toxins, according to the CDC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the UT researcher’s new treatment for inhalational anthrax on March 21.

It will be further developed under the name of Anthim by New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Elusys Therapeutics. Patients can use the drug in conjunction with proper antibiotics for the treatment of inhalational anthrax.  

In fact, the U.S. government has already signed a contract with Elusys to stockpile Anthim as a treatment precaution for future outbreaks in the government’s Strategic National Stockpile. Anthrax first became a topic of interest in the 1970s.

“People started to realize that you could do biological warfare and create biological warfare agents with anthrax,” said Jennifer Maynard, associate professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering.

Maynard explained that people first became concerned about anthrax’s dangerous potential when there was an outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Russia. Researchers tracked directions of the wind patterns and used that information to calculate where the anthrax came from, according to a study in the journal Science. It was traced back to a Russian military facility that had released anthrax spores into the environment. 

“It’s easy to make, incredibly potent, and it will persist in the environment. It’s the perfect biological weapon, unfortunately,” Brent Iverson, dean of undergraduate studies and professor in the chemistry department, said.

Iverson said that anthrax is dangerous because it can last in harsh environments for years in the form of spores, or bacterial “seeds.”

“This is important because things like smallpox or ebola don’t survive outside of animals, so they don’t contaminate an area,” Iverson said. “You can pass them on from person to person or animal to animal, but with anthrax, the spores will last for decades in the outside environment,” 

After an animal consumes these spores, they germinate into live bacteria and release toxins in the body. These toxins, not the actual bacterium, are lethal, according to Iverson and Maynard.

Researchers engineered the drug without ever having live anthrax on campus, according to Iverson. Elusys Therapeutics then conducted clinical trials in animals, including primates. They also did safety trials in healthy humans to show that the engineered drug itself was not harmful.

“This is a wonderful example of what academic science of high practical and national significance can do,” Iverson said. “It was a great partnership between academia and the commercial sector, where everyone got to do what they do best.” 

 Iverson said he is glad Anthim is available for anyone who may need to take it but hopes that there will not be any anthrax outbreaks in the future.

“In our research, we want to develop things that are going to make people’s lives better, so this has really taught us about how to go forward with the process of creating a drug,” Maynard said.