2001: a year of major advances in anthrax toxin research.


Anthrax is caused when spores of Bacillus anthracis enter a host and germinate. The bacteria multiply and secrete a tripartite toxin causing local edema and, in systemic infection, death. In nature, anthrax is primarily observed in cattle and other herbivores; humans are susceptible but rarely affected. In 2001, anthrax spores were used effectively for the first time in bioterrorist attacks, resulting in 11 confirmed cases of human disease and five deaths. These events have underscored the need for improved prophylaxis, therapeutics and a molecular understanding of the toxin. The good news about anthrax is that several decisive discoveries regarding the toxin have been reported recently. Most notably, the toxin receptor was identified, the 3-D structures of two of the toxin subunits were solved and potent in vivo inhibitors were designed. These findings have improved our understanding of the intoxication mechanism and are stimulating the design of strategies to fight disease in the future.