Fighting bioterrorism

A Montclair State researcher is working with government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and other scientists to help the United States combat a serious threat in the war on bioterrorism.

David Rotella, the University’s Sokol Professor of Chemistry and a former research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, was awarded a $2.5 million, five-year contract from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to help develop inhibitors of the botulinum toxin, which causes botulism, a life threatening illness characterized by paralysis and respiratory failure.

“This is one of the most, if not the most, toxic agents known to man,” says Rotella. It is also a potentially powerful bioterror Rotella will work with the U.S. Army Institute for Chemical Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, the Naval Research Laboratory and pharmaceutical companies Ossianix and Hawaii Biotech to eventually disarm the threat of the botulinum toxin.

“The aim of the project is to identify a molecule or molecules that would provide either treatment for exposure to botulinum toxin, or provide prophylactic protection prior to exposure,” explains Rotella.

As Botox, botulinum toxin is injected in minute amounts into specific areas for localized cosmetic effects. “But if you were exposed to this by food consumption or inhalation, a larger amount of the toxin would be more broadly distributed within you, which would lead to adverse, potentially fatal, results,” says Rotella.

Because the toxin is easily produced and easily distributed, it is a major bioterrorism concern. Following exposure, time becomes the enemy, as the physical effects begin shortly thereafter. To counter this, an effective drug or antitoxin would need to be readily available for rapid administration in the event of a widespread exposure to the toxin. Developing a drug that could be administered prior to exposure and would provide protection from the toxin is also a possibility, Rotella says.

Rotella’s team, which includes a post-doctoral scientist, is working to synthesize new molecules – or inhibitors – that are potential drug candidates.

“These molecules have properties that might inhibit the enzyme botulinum A protease that we hope to improve, so that at least one compound could eventually be tested in clinical trials,” he says. The FDA requires such trials before approving new treatments for use in humans.