Friday, December 07, 2007

BIOTERROR GOLD RUSH: Still good opportunity for quacks

If you follow press releases from universities and the private sector, the bioterror defense boom in the United States is is built upon the simple pursuit of grants - free money.

The promoters of the boom brush aside criticisms that it is an overreaction in the war on terror or a bald-faced money grab. "[The] consensus of 16 intelligence agencies is that there is a high level of threat from an attack," Ronald Kendall, a scientist at Texas Tech and promoter of the boom, told one newspaper recently.

One conclusion to be drawn from the anti-terror gold rush is that the pure expansion in number of labs handling agents of interest to bioterrorists will (1), expose more lab workers to their potential for serious infection, and: (2) increase the profile and number of repositories from which the agents can be diverted by insiders. The additional risk of a boffin within the biodefense academy going to the dark side cannot be estimated with any certainty, although it is not a zero chance.

Another aspect of the biodefense boom not often discussed is that some of the investments are simply poor ones or the bankrolling of junky science.

DD goes into these issues at el Reg here.

This week, a spurt of news stories on a miracle cure for bioterror made the rounds. It was spun off a press release emitted by a scientific meeting the previous week and was not the result of an article in any prestigious medical journal for peer-reviewed science.

Readers unfamiliar with annual scientific meetings should know that one can say, present or post anything at them. They are venues for works-in-progress and do not constitute peer-reviewed science. More appropriately, they can be seen as junkets, opportunities to network and meet old aquaintances, and places for showing off to science journalists who flock to them for material.

"Mention inhalers and most people think of asthma, but new research shows that inhalers could become infection-fighting, lifesaving gear for firemen, emergency workers and other first responders," reported AP on the new potential miracle cure for bioterror.

"They could also help protect people whose immune systems are weakened by chemotherapy or HIV, according to scientists who've tested the new inhaler in mice."

" 'We showed we can protect mice against all four major classes of pathogens: Gram positive bacteria, Gram negative bacteria, fungus and virus," one scientist -- Brenton Scott, a post-doctoral fellow in the pulmonary medicine department of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"His team was slated to present its findings Monday at the American Society for Cell Biology's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.," reported AP.

"The team exposed mice to an aerosolized formulation called Aerosolized Lung Innate Immune Stimulant (ALIIS), a soluble bacterial extract ... untreated mice all died of [infections], but 83 percent of the mice that were exposed two hours following treatment survived, as did 100 percent of mice exposed between four and 24 hours later. Protection lasted as long as five days ... and was also effective against a broad range of pathogens, including the bacteria responsible for anthrax, plague, tularemia, the fungus Aspergillus and influenza virus.

"According to Scott, this broad-spectrum protection means ALIIS could potentially be used by first responders in the event of a bioterror attack.

"But Steven Mizel, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Wake Forest University Health Sciences in Winston-Salem, NC, was skeptical."

Readers unfamiliar with the science of medical research may not know the old joke between boffins that "everything works in mice."

Other alarm bells are that the new potential patent medicine works against everything. If this were really to be true, it would be nothing less than a revolution in fighting infectious disease. All a person would have to do before going out in the winter would be to puff on his miracle inhaler and the common cold, flu -- all kaput, like bugs splattering on your car's windshield during the summer.

So the world changed at a scientific meeting in DC and you missed it. Or not.

A good deal of the interest coming from the US government and military is for miracle cures. Both agencies want simple inhalable cures that protect against everything. Surveys of the patent database for applications related to cures for bioterror show the trend fairly plainly.

The wish is crazy -- indeed, it's a good marking symptom of bad or junk science -- but it also leaves quite an opening for boffins to promise very big things.

Since the expansion in bioterror defense spending five years ago, little -- if anything -- of general benefit to the health of Americans has resulted. If you don't have health insurance or are now uninsurable because of a pre-existing condition, rest assured no expense is being spared to protect you from bioterrorism. Your heart will also be warmed by assurances that biodefense research always promises cures and new knowledge with broad applications in public health.

This month's bioterror miracle cure here.

Another miraculous bioterror cure which purifies the blood. Yeah, right.


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