Saturday, February 26, 2011

Researcher Dies of Bubonic Plague

Plague Death Came Within Hours, Spurred by Scientist's Medical Condition
University of Chicago infectious disease specialist Ken Alexander still remembers the shock he felt almost 18 months ago when his pager shook with the message that a colleague had died from the plague.

A half-hour later, Alexander was sitting at a table in the dean’s office with researchers, lawyers, administrators and campus security officers, he recalled in an interview. The stricken colleague, Malcolm Casadaban, a 60-year-old genetics and cell biology professor, had checked into a hospital five days earlier and died within hours. Lab results were positive for the plague, and the university’s “biosafety fire alarm” had been triggered, Alexander said.
 That'll get your attention.
Casadaban was conducting laboratory research on the bacterium that causes the plague when he became sick. The germ was genetically weakened and considered harmless to humans. It was considered so safe, Casadaban’s work with the live plague bacteria wasn’t noted when he fell ill, according to the CDC. A professor at the university for 30 years, by all accounts he had followed the proper safety protocols, the report said.
 Working with a weakened strain is a good strategy, but something went wrong.  What was it?
An autopsy found the researcher had a medical condition called hemochromatosis, which causes an excessive buildup of iron in the body, according to the CDC report. The disorder affects about 1 in 400 people and goes unnoticed in about half of patients.

Casadaban’s illness is important because of the way the plague bacterium had been weakened. Yersinia pestis needs iron to survive. Normally it gets this iron by stealing it from a host’s body with proteins that bind to it and help break it down. To make the bacterium harmless, scientists genetically stripped it of the proteins needed to consume iron.
"Death and the Maiden" by Hans Baldung Grien (1517)
 So Casadaban's blood gave the bacteria all the iron it needed.  It proliferated and killed him.  It's a neat story, really unfortunate but neat. Still, something had to have gone wrong with this isolation procedures; weakened or not, the bacterium should have been kept under strict biohazard conditions.  But then, I never make a mistake in the lab; no never.

But, the plague wasn't all bad after all.  It gave us all kinds of good art...

1 comment:

  1. Death art. You missed this one.