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It's not too late to join the bioterror gold rush

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If you follow press releases from universities and the private sector, much of the boom is built upon the simple pursuit of grants - free money. It is a biotech gold rush in the war on terror.

The promoters of the boom, like Kendall at Texas Tech, 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," he told the Ft Worth newspaper.

One rebuttal is that the "16 national intelligence agencies" have not had an especially good track record in threat assessment from the war on terror.

Another conclusion 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.

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

For one example, George Mason University's federally funded National Center of Biodefense, one equipped with a high-containment Biosafety Level 4 lab, cracked up in 2006-2007.

Founded by Ken Alibek, the world famous defector from the old Soviet Union's biowarfare program, Alibek resigned in late 2006, after internal acrimony over teaching responsibilities and research.

Although little has come from George Mason's research in biodefense, the school did appear to turn into a diploma mill of sorts, one for biodefense, awarding 13 PhDs on the subject. It also became a recycler for two high profile scientists formerly embroiled in a conflict-of-interest scandal at the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Adminstration, now fallen to minor biodefense research.

Since the biodefense boom is seen to be where the money is, following resuscitation of orphan drugs, formerly thrown out after testing in peer-reviewed studies, becomes interesting.

One such case recent is that of IM862, a dipetide compound of two amino acids, which was briefly a cause for excitement around the turn of the century because it was thought to have anti-cancer potential. IM862 inhibited the formation of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones, known as angiogenesis, a necessity for growth of tumors. Many were interested in its potential for treating things like ovarian cancer.

A company called Cytran banked on the compound and clinical trials were started. The scientific literature subsequently shows IM862 was ineffective as an anti-cancer agent, doing nothing in tests against renal cell carcinoma and even hastening progression of disease in one study of its use in Kaposi's Sarcoma afflicted AIDS patients. Cytran had spent 11 years and $50m on IM862, declaring bankruptcy almost immediately upon result of the bad news. Its intellectual property was sold off in a fire sale held for creditors.

However, in the defense establishment it sometimes appears convenient to throw out negative results in search of slim reeds for biodefense.

Im862 has been reborn as glufanide disodium (or oglufanide disodium), potential bioterror defender. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), as part of the free money-dispensing machinery in the boom, awarded an Australian firm, Implicit Biosciences, $18.2m to look into the drug as a cure-all, specifically against the microbe which causes melioidosis, a disease similar to glanders. The eyebrow-raiser is the sudden morphing of a compound found ineffective against cancer in peer-reviewed clinical studies to one funded, in the seeming absence of good scientific rationale, for use as a bioterror silver bullet. The testing of IM862 is to be carried out jointly in Seattle with animals infected with various biowarfare agents.

So you think Aunt Minnie's special hangover remedy might have potential against bioterror? Uncle Sam wants to hear from you. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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