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Scientists Grapple With Germ Danger

.c The Associated Press


SEATTLE (AP) -- It sounds like science fiction: Microscopic oil droplets protect patients from germs and viruses by fusing with the dangerous bugs and causing them essentially to explode.

University of Michigan scientists, hunting ways to protect soldiers from biological warfare, say they have created just such a drug. It can eradicate deadly anthrax within an hour of contact, and promises to be so non-toxic to humans that one day it might be possible to decontaminate germ-laden food.

Dr. James Baker, creator of these drug droplets so tiny they have been dubbed ``nano-bombs,'' added some to a sample of cholera viewed through a microscope.

A few minutes later, ``All that's left here is debris. The remarkable thing is this happens almost immediately,'' Baker said.

While still highly experimental, Baker told a biotechnology meeting here Wednesday he envisions one day using the nano-bombs not just to treat infection, but as protection. They might work as an HIV-blocking vaginal cream. Or spray them in your nostrils during flu season and you might not get sick.

Baker mixed them to the consistency of skim milk and put them in a standard paint sprayer as a way to decontaminate the environment after, say, an anthrax threat.

If you add peppermint, he said, ``it actually tastes pretty good.''

Baker's creation is part of a Star Trek-like field of science called ``nanotechnology,'' creating drugs and other products so minute that researchers have to build them one molecule at a time.

Such discoveries have so intrigued the Clinton administration that it just listed nanotechnology as a research priority for the next budget, said Gregory Milman, director of the National Institutes of Health's Office for Innovation.

Joining nanodrugs on the wish list are computer chips capable of storing trillions of bits of information on a pin-head and miniature sensors that could detect hidden ovarian cancer.

Also Wednesday, researchers said they are designing nanochips to quickly read a patient's genes to help pinpoint medical treatment, and ``nanoswitches'' to turn off defective genes.

Just how small is nanotechnology? A nanometer is a mere one-billionth of a meter. Bacteria and viruses are many times smaller than a human hair, and Baker's nano-bombs are hundreds of times smaller than that.

Size is key because it makes the oil droplets ``likely to fuse with bacteria while leaving our own cells alone,'' said Baker, whose Defense Department-funded research also is important to doctors hunting ways to fight the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The droplets bind to the membrane coating germs or viruses and disrupts that coating ``so much that the organism literally explodes,'' explained Baker. He said he successfully has killed a host of bacteria and viruses -- even HIV, anthrax and smallpox -- in test-tube studies.

Animal tests showed success, too.

Spraying the wounds of mice dying of anthrax reduced mortality by 85 percent. Nano-bombs decontaminated environmental anthrax faster than bleach, one of just a few chemicals strong enough to kill the spores on contact.

That is important considering growing fear over use of this deadly infection by bioterrorists. The nation had 5,000 anthrax threats last year, Baker said.

When people are thought to be exposed, they may be washed down with bleach or given antibiotics in an attempt to stave off infection, but doctors -- and the Defense Department, worried about biowarfare -- want better protection.

When Baker tried to infect mice with a severe flu strain, those whose noses first had been swabbed with the nano-bombs did not get sick. Unprotected mice died.

Why would not nano-bombs hurt our cells, too? Most human cells have a different coating that seems to keep them from fusing with the droplets, Baker said. So far, animals have not shown any sign of harm. But he will have to prove safety in lengthy clinical trials before Americans could use such a drug.

Baker's first goal is to use nano-bombs as an environmental decontamination agent because that takes less testing than the Food and Drug Administration requires for a medication.

But his first human drug study, to be conducted at NIH, is planned: using nano-bombs as a vaginal cream to try to protect women from the AIDS virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.

AP-NY-05-19-99 1702EDT

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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