Originally posted in Infection Control Today
There is an ongoing battle in the “war on terror” that remains mostly unseen to the public — a race between scientists working to develop a vaccine to protect against plague and the terrorists who seek to use plague as a weapon.
“Governments remain concerned that bioweapons of aerosolized Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, could kill thousands,” says Stephen Smiley, a leading plague researcher and Trudeau Institute faculty member.
The anthrax scare that followed the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, made the threat of bioterrorism real and led to a surge in federal funding into research aimed at heading off such threats.
According to Smiley, there is no licensed plague vaccine in the United States. Together with postdoctoral associate Jr-Shiuan Lin, he is working to develop a vaccine that will protect members of the armed services and public from a “plague bomb.”
Yersinia pestis is arguably the most deadly bacteria known to man. Plague infections of the lung, known as pneumonic plague, are extremely lethal. The bacteria, which grow both inside and outside the cells of the lung, usually lead to death within a week of infection.
Most of the plague vaccine candidates that have been studied aim to stimulate B cells to produce plague-fighting antibodies. However, animal studies suggest that antibodies may not be enough to protect humans from pneumonic plague. The Smiley laboratory has shown that T cells can also fight plague. The lab previously demonstrated that a single immunization with an experimental vaccine stimulates the production of T cells that provide partial protection against pneumonic plague.