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.That'll get your attention.
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.
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)|
But, the plague wasn't all bad after all. It gave us all kinds of good art...