Biodefense scientists meeting in Baltimore to look at research

2nd conference since 9/11 examines possibilities

March 10, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Michael McLaughlin and Eric Garber spend their days lacing milk chocolate and fruit juice with the deadly toxin ricin.

But don't call the FBI. McLaughlin and Garber are U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists conducting research on how bioterrorists might attack and how Americans can be protected.

"The question was, could we detect ricin in food and cosmetics?" Garber says. "The good news is, we were able to detect it in all products at levels way below what a terrorist would be likely to use."

The FDA chemists, who work in College Park, are among 800 biodefense scientists in Baltimore this week to compare notes on new anthrax vaccines, therapies for the Ebola virus and outbreak models for smallpox. The American Society for Microbiology organized the conference, the second of its kind since the research boom set off by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax mailings later that year.

The gathering at the Waterfront Marriott carries a whiff of paranoia - or prudence, depending on your perspective. The FDA researchers were asked by their bosses to remove details of the foods that they contaminated with ricin from the poster explaining their research. "We don't want to give people ideas," Garber said.

And when a Japanese scientist appeared to be using his cell phone to snap a picture of their ricin poster, another scientist hurried over to warn them.

"It's OK," McLaughlin said. "It's not secret."

But a scent in the air more potent than paranoia is that of money. Federal anti-bioterrorism spending has quadrupled since 2001 to $6 billion a year, and researchers are competing for much of that money.

Had a biodefense research meeting been called just a few years ago, it would have drawn "a very small group and a much older group," said Gail Cassell, vice president for scientific affairs at Eli Lilly and the conference organizer. "The interest would have been minuscule."

But this week's big crowd is distinctly youthful, including hundreds of young scientists who have evidently judged that bioterror preparedness is a reasonable career choice. There are many signs that they are right: Vendors peddling "Biothreat Alert Test Strips" and "Virus Production and Purification" services mingle with scientists at wine-and-hors d'oeuvres receptions paid for by corporations. The ASM Press booth offers one of its hottest new sellers: a $22 set of 104 baseball-card-style "Microbe Cards," with slides of germs on the front and the devastation they can wreak described on the back.

"Every meeting I take 'em to, they disappear fast," said ASM Press editor Greg Payne.

Scientists who have worked for years on the threat from germ weapons are gratified to find their expertise suddenly in demand. Many of the old hands in the field work for the military, particularly at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick County.

"I'd use the word `vindication,'" said Dr. Peter B. Jahrling, principal scientific adviser at USAMRIID and a 32-year veteran who organized a panel Monday on zoonotic diseases, those that pass from animals to humans.

Until recent years, "response to bioterrorism was a backwater of science," Jahrling said. "It was politically incorrect to even talk about bioterrorism, which was considered to be something drummed up by the military to steal research funding from public health."

After the deaths, fear and disruption caused by the anthrax attacks, Jahrling said, "I think there have been a number of converts." The funding surge hasn't hurt, he said, adding: "It's amazing what money will do to change people's views."

Some skeptics have questioned the scale of the biodefense investment, noting that the anthrax letters caused only five deaths - and may have been sent by someone with ties to the U.S. biodefense sector. But Cassell, the conference organizer, said most of the research devoted to bioterrorism will boost defenses against natural diseases, particularly such threats as SARS and avian flu.

One prominent biodefense researcher could not attend. As the four-day meeting wraps up today, Dr. Thomas C. Butler, a plague researcher at Texas Tech University, is to be sentenced in Lubbock, Texas, in a case that has sent tremors through the scientific community.

Butler was accused last year of lying to the FBI about plague samples he had reported missing and of violating regulations by hand-carrying vials of germs on planes and in his car. In November, he was acquitted of most of the charges related to his handling of germs but convicted on 47 counts, mostly fraud charges related to consulting contracts.

Many eminent scientists, including Dr. Peter C. Agre of the Johns Hopkins University, a 2003 Nobel laureate in chemistry, have defended the Hopkins-trained Butler as a dedicated researcher and denounced the government's prosecution as overkill. They point out that his research has helped determine what antibiotics could be used to treat plague if it was used in an attack.

Another plague researcher at the Baltimore meeting, Dr. Janet Foley of the University of California at Davis, said the Butler prosecution has had a huge impact on other researchers.

"If they wanted to make an example of him, they succeeded," said Foley, who studies the natural spread of plague among ground squirrels and prairie dogs. "We make sure we document every single molecule. ... I do not want to go to jail."

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