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Discovery may lead to better anthrax drugs or vaccines

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Researchers have learned how anthrax toxins enter cells and what part of the bacteria is the killer, findings which will give experts better targets for drugs and vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said the findings hold promise.

"It essentially opens up a whole new ballgame of how you can specifically approach possibilities of interfering with the potentially lethal effects with anthrax ," Fauci said.

The discoveries are outlined in two articles published in the scientific journal Nature. The articles were scheduled to be released November 8, but the journal decided to release them early based on the recent emphasis on anthrax.

One article specifies how anthrax toxins actually get into human cells. That research, conducted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that a piece of the anthrax bacteria, called the "protective antigen," locks onto a receptor on the cell surface. After it locks on, the anthrax injects two other parts into the cell, and one, called the "lethal factor," destroys the cell.

If the receptor can be blocked, scientists say, the "lethal factor" will not be able to enter cells.

The second paper, produced by the Burnham Institute in California, found the precise crystal structure of the "lethal factor." The discovery is important, because the crystal structure shows every nook and cranny of a molecule -- all the points that could be used as targets to block the molecule.

"Once you get the precise structure, then you can literally map out all the different vulnerable points" where anthrax could invade, said Fauci.

Locating vulnerable points has been used before. It was the process that led to the development of protease inhibitors, the powerful new drugs that have made HIV a chronic disease in many HIV-positive people in America.

The latest discovery "has the same sort of potential" to stymie anthrax, Fauci said.

Fauci said the National Institutes of Health will be funding efforts from this research to develop better treatment and vaccines, and they will work as quickly as possible. Even so, it will take years before any medicine from this research is ready for approval.


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