COLUMBIA, S.C. … A University of South Carolina-led research team has found what could be a key tool in the effort to build a better vaccine against the most deadly form of anthrax.

Researchers Karen and Alvin Fox hope to improve upon the current vaccine by targeting a glycoprotein that surrounds each anthrax spore so that the vaccine might disable the spores before they find a warm, inviting home in a victim’s lungs. The glycoprotein also could lead to almost instant detection of anthrax spores used in bioterror attacks.

The anthrax bacterium has proven to be a tough target over the years. A six-stage vaccine used by the American military has yet to be proven effective, and though the military has been working on biodetection methods for anthrax since World War II, there’s still not a device that is fast and reliable.

Alvin Fox’s research team discovered a carbohydrate unique to anthrax spores a decade ago, and the new research, which is published in the current Journal of Microbiological Methods, identifies this carbohydrate as a component of the protein discovered by French researchers last year that helps the spore work its way into the lungs.

Targeting the glycoprotein, a protein-carbohydrate combination, would prevent the spores from binding to the lung and doing damage. The current vaccine does not target anthrax until later in the process, targeting the toxins produced after the spores germinate.

It could be five to 10 years before an improved vaccine could be realized, but researchers also are pursuing using the glycoprotein as a bioterror detector. Fox would like to develop an on-site device to analyze air quality, breaking down elements in the air to analyze their molecular structure. Now, samples of suspect contamination must be grown in a petri dish and analyzed by a lab before anyone is sure whether anthrax is present.

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