There was a huge controversy last year surrounding publication of a paper in Science about the bird flu virus. The paper basically described how bird flu can be made more virulent. The same drama is now being played out once again, only this time it involves a particularly nasty variety of the botulinum bacteria, which happens to be the same class of bacteria used in Botox injections. The offender, botulinum toxin type H, has just been discovered, and the reason for the sudden concern is that there are no known antibodies that are effective against it.
The toxin released by the bacteria blocks acetylcholine, the transmitter used by nerves to control muscle. Inhaling just 13 billionths of a gram, or injecting just two grams, can be lethal. Recalling the attempt in the ’90s by the Japanese terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, the team working on the bacterium has elected to publish their findings only in an incomplete form. While arguments have been made in the past for complete openness in publication, those who need this information in their search for antidotes can most likely get access to the relevant databases. It is encouraging that this common sense approach has taken hold now despite the confusion we had just a year ago with the H5N1 bird flu virus.
The role of biohackers in making new scientific discoveries is increasing, but clearly botulinum is a matter for advanced disease control centers. Should a large-scale outbreak somehow happen, then that might be a different story. In order to develop the usual treatment for botulinum, antibodies are raised that can bind to it. Knowing the DNA sequence is critical to determining not just what the bacterium looks like, but what kind of products or toxins it makes. Once antibodies have been developed against botulinum, the situation is a little different, and opening the databases to a larger community makes more sense.
The type H toxin, found in the feces of a child in the Sacramento area, is the eighth botulinum toxin found to date. Many governmental agencies are already involved in the situation, including the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Army infectious disease laboratory. They approved the publication of the new research, but will continue to oversee the sensitive bits until the expected antitoxin is produced. This new arena of “dual use research” presents a few complications for the medical research community, but seems to be moving ahead smoothly with an acceptable result for all parties involved, including you and me.
Research paper: doi: 10.1093/infdis/jit449 – “A Novel Strain of Clostridium botulinum That Produces Type B and Type H Botulinum Toxins”