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In quest of an anthrax cure

Drug raises hope against a terror arm

WASHINGTON -- It might be considered an anthrax bloodhound, a drug that can swoop into the body, latch onto deadly toxins spewed by anthrax bacteria, and get rid of them.

Two years after the anthrax-by-mail attacks, scientists are at work on such an antidote.

It's far too soon to be sure it will work. The drug, called ABthrax, did save animals exposed to lethal amounts of anthrax, but human safety tests began only recently.

If the anthrax killer, who is still at large, struck again, a few hundred doses of the experimental drug are on hand. And doctors might be allowed to try it.

ABthrax is one of very few options in testing, though millions have been spent on bioterrorism preparedness since 2001.

That's the reality: Medical research takes time.

If someone showed up sick tomorrow, treatment "probably would not be significantly different," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health. "Even though these things are moving pretty rapidly, it still would depend on good antibiotics," and on getting quick care.

Still, knowledge about anthrax and other bioterrorism agents has brought a benefit: Doctors may quickly spot and battle naturally occurring infections like monkeypox and SARS.

"There's a whole different understanding of the importance of everyday, front-line public health," said Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, who advises the government.

Two years ago, a Florida man was the first to die in the attacks, after he apparently inhaled anthrax from a tainted letter sent to his employer, a supermarket tabloid. A string of tainted mailings to members of Congress and the media followed, ultimately killing five people and sickening 17.

If nothing else, Fauci said, the attention should have raised awareness enough that if anthrax ever reappears, "the emergency room physician will not say, `Go away and take two aspirin.' "

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