Gobble Gobble, A New Test for Toxins?

By GMU Biodefense graduate student, Blain Johnson

Do you find yourself reminiscing about the holidays, back when the bitter cold was mitigated by winter cheer? Cast your mind back to November. Every Thanksgiving millions of families sit down and eat a pleasant turkey dinner, after all, what would the holiday be without the signature dish in the center of the table? But what if you were told that turkeys are good for something other than eating?

A recent University of California Berkeley study has found that it is possible to create a sort of ‘plastic card’ that can be sample air to detect the presence of dangerous toxins or chemicals. The finding was inspired by the turkey, a bird whose skin color changes based on the level of stress around it. Inspired by this unique ability, researchers constructed a molecule, similar in shape to collagen, which contains a specific bacteriophage capable of self assembling into colorful, readable patterns if it detect a given toxin or chemical.

The Berkeley bioengineers tailored their virus to bind to specific sites on particles of TNT explosive. The result was that their new sensor could detect trace amounts of airborne TNT particles. Their development is the newest biosensor that, ironically, contains a living virus. Their bacteriophage can be genetically engineered to change color in the presence of any number of toxins, chemicals, and other viruses. While the discovery is an enormous breakthrough, the lead scientist, Dr. Seung-Wuk Lee, says she hopes to develop more sensitivity for the test in the coming months capable of producing even smaller measurements, such as  sugar levels in diabetic patients.

This new innovation goes beyond medicine; the ability to detect harmful toxins and chemicals is a major breakthrough in our ability to prepare for emergency situations and warn citizens of a possible disease outbreak or terrorist attack before it reaches a critical juncture. Imagine testing a room by waving a plastic card in the air and being able to definitively say the area is safe. This is an important discovery for the Emergency Management field and will hopefully lead to safer and more prepared communities.

So the next time you decide to eat a turkey sandwich, tell your nearest neighbor that you are eating a bird which inspired a  biosensor capable of detecting TNT at 300 parts per billion and see what they say.

The Pandora Report 11.15.13

Highlights include H7N9 vaccines, using bacterial toxins as antibiotics, updated numbers for the Mexican cholera outbreak, the dolphin morbillivirus, Albania refusing to host the Syrian CW arsenal, H6N1, and MERS in camels. Happy Friday!

Vaccines for H7N9 Ahead of Pandemic Fears
As the Northern Hemisphere braces for winter, fears of a resurgence of H7N9 cases are rising. Although the cooler weather has brought a few new cases, it’s still to early to tell whether another large-scale outbreak is imminent. Luckily, both Novartis and Novavax have developed vaccines capable of eliciting strong immune responses to H7N9. The Novavax vaccine generated a significant immune response in 81% of study participants, while the Novartis vaccine generated an 85% response. The real story is the time frame – it took both companies just a few months to have a viable vaccine in clinical trials, which is both impressive and encouraging should an outbreak occur.

Fierce Biotech – “Novartis and partners at the Craig Venter Institute in San Diego were able to launch a clinical trial in August after the virus was identified in March. The project was funded by BARDA. The H1N1 scare back in 2009 spurred a global, multibillion-dollar effort to stockpile vaccines. The campaign highlighted just how long it took to develop and manufacture new vaccines and then spurred a backlash after governments around the globe rushed to buy stockpiles only to see the threat evaporate. In Europe some health officials accused pharma companies of capitalizing on the fear of a lethal pandemic, and memories of the controversy will likely influence any new moves to guard against a new outbreak. This winter’s alarm may also fizzle, but these companies have demonstrated that new vaccines can be developed in record time.”

Bacterial Toxins Suggest New Antibiotic Targets
A group of researchers at MIT have found a bacterial toxin which may result in the development of novel antibiotics. The toxin, SocB, is used as a part of the toxin/antitoxin interplay by Caulobacter crescentu to check bacterial growth if necessary. It binds to a highly conserved protein, DnaN, suggesting the possibility of developing new, broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Bio-IT World – “To regulate their own growth and proliferation, bacteria maintain an intricate network of toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems, in which they produce a mix of toxins and targeted antitoxins that can skew toward a disruptive level of toxins in poor environmental conditions to limit growth. Some bacteria have been found to contain as many as 50 of these TA systems, all prepared to check bacterial growth should anything trigger a reduction in antitoxins…[SocB] inhibits replication in Caulobacter crescentus by binding to a protein that participates in numerous crucial reactions in the replisome, playing roles in mismatch repair, translesion synthesis, and especially DNA replication itself.”

WHO: Update on Cholera Outbreak in Mexico
The cholera outbreak which began in September is continuing apace in Mexico, with four cases in the last week bringing the total laboratory-confirmed case count to 180. The majority of the cases are concentrated within the state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City. This is the first outbreak of cholera in Mexico in over a decade. The strain is 95% identical to that of the Haitain outbreak, which was caused by an influx of infected UN aid workers following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. The Haitian outbreak, described as the “worst in recent history” by the CDC, is ongoing, with 684,085 cases to date.

WHO – “The health authorities of Mexico continue to strengthen outbreak investigation and surveillance at the national level and continue to ensure the availability and quality of care in medical units. Health professionals at different levels of the health care system are being trained in prevention and treatment of the disease. Measures are being implemented to ensure access to drinking water and basic sanitation at the community level. Awareness campaigns, particularly around safe water and food consumption are being carried out in Spanish and indigenous languages. An antimicrobial susceptibility test for Vibrio cholerae O1 Ogawa was conducted by the Institute of Epidemiological Diagnostics and Reference (InDRE) which demonstrated that the bacterium was susceptible to doxycycline and chloramphenicol, with reduced susceptibility to ciprofloxacin and resistance to trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole.”

Dolphin-Killing Virus Spreads South, May Be Infecting Whales Too
There’s been a lot of coverage recently of the morbillivirus infecting dolphins, killing 753 of the animals since July.  The virus has subsequently spread to two species of whales, humpback and pygmy respectively. In humans, measles belongs to the genus Morbillivirus, but to date there have been no documented cases of strains of morbillivirus jumping from a dolphin or other marine mammal to a human, and the likelihood of it doing so remains very low. However, the virus may be able to infect dogs, so if you see a stranded dolphin, keep Fido away as you’re calling animal control.

Wired – “The outbreak began along the coast between New York and Virginia this summer. Now, carcasses are washing ashore in the Carolinas and Florida. Researchers have identified the cause as dolphin morbillivirus, a pathogen that’s related to human measles and canine distemper…The die-off has already been classified as an Unusual Mortality Event by the federal government – a designation that frees up resources and sends investigators and responders to the hardest-hit areas. It’s already exceeded the pace set by the last major morbillivirus outbreak on the East Coast, an event that lasted for 11 months, between June 1987 and May 1988, and ultimately claimed 742 dolphins.”

Albania shuns Syria chemical weapons destruction
How does one destroy a chemical weapon? It’s a question we’ve asked before here on the Pandora Report, and one which our October Biodefense Policy Seminar Speaker, Dr. Paul Walker, answered pretty clearly – very carefully (for a slightly more detailed answer, his full talk is available on our YouTube channel). According to the BBC, there has been a slight hiccup in the destruction of the Syrian arsenal. Following mass protests, the Albanians, who were supposed to host and destroy the materials, have flat out refused to do so. This has left the poor OPCW investigators scrambling to find a different destination for the weapons before the Friday deadline for submission of final plans lapses. Someone get these people (another) medal!

BBC – “The Balkan nation recently destroyed its own chemical stockpile, and the US had requested that it host the dismantling of Syria’s arsenal. Under the deal brokered by Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, it was agreed that they should be destroyed outside the country if possible. Mr Rama attacked the Albanian opposition for having criticised the government’s willingness to consider the idea. A key meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the international watchdog supervising the destruction – had adjourned for several hours, awaiting Albania’s decision.”

In case you missed it:

First Human Infection with H6N1
MERS Confirmed Live in Camel

(image: Docklands Tony/Flickr)