Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

A New Weapon Against Anthrax?

By Robert A. Wascher, M.D., F.A.C.S. | In this week's journal Nature, scientists have reportedly identified an enzyme that is capable of recognizing and destroying both the inactive spores and the active form of the anthrax bacillus. The enzyme is naturally produced by a virus that specifically targets bacteria, including anthrax. The enzyme, PlyG, is a member of the lysin family of enzymes, which cause a lethal disruption of susceptible bacteria. What is especially interesting about this study is that PlyG appears to be effective in killing the dormant spores of anthrax as well as the active bacillus. Like other bacilli, anthrax bacteria can transform themselves into a spherical "vegetative spore" when environmental or nutritional conditions are inadequate to sustain the bacterial cells' needs. These spores are extraordinarily resistant to extremes of temperature, dryness, and lack of nutrients, as well as to the presence of antibiotics or antiseptics. PlyG appears to specifically and efficiently target both forms of the anthrax bacterium, and without apparent toxicity to the mice that were experimentally infected with the deadly bacterium. PlyG was able to kill anthrax bacteria in both test tubes as well as in mice that were infected with anthrax. When compared to infected mice receiving a placebo, anthrax-infected mice that received PlyG were significantly more likely to survive their anthrax infections. This study offers hope for a new and potentially highly effective treatment for victims of anthrax infection, a disease that is 99% fatal when left untreated.


In this week's Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the impact of cataracts on the incidence of motor vehicle accidents among elderly drivers was assessed. The term cataract describes the changes that occur in the lenses of the eyes of many elderly people. When the lens loses its transparency and become hazy, a person is said to have cataracts. Cataracts can significantly impair vision, and the cloudy lens is often removed and replaced with a plastic lens that is surgically inserted into the eye. Excessive and chronic exposure of the eyes to the sun and other sources of ultraviolet radiation, and some medicines (steroids and some cancer treatment drugs, for example), can increase the risk of cataract formation.

In the JAMA study, 277 volunteers with cataracts, aged 55 to 84 years, were followed for a period of 4 to 6 years. The incidence of motor vehicle accidents was then compared among those volunteers choosing to have cataract surgery (174 people) and those who chose not to undergo surgery (103 people). The study found that half as many volunteers who had undergone cataract surgery had accidents when compared to the non-surgery group. It is not clear how well balanced both groups were in terms of other serious health problems that might also have impacted on the motor vehicle accident rate. It is possible, for example, that the patients who chose not to undergo cataract surgery might have had other serious ailments that made them poor surgical risks, and that these additional medical problems, if any, might have played a role in the increased number of accidents in this group. Still, this is an intriguing study, and at least suggests that the presence of significant cataracts may increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents when left untreated.


Gingko biloba is among the most widely used non-prescription herbal supplement in the world. Many claims have been made for the effects of gingko, including the ability to enhance blood flow to the brain and, in the process, to improve memory and overall brain function. Gingko has also been proposed as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), altitude sickness, and arterial disease of the legs. Gingko is known to have a high concentration of antioxidants, called biflavones, and is therefore thought to have potential anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, although there is not much scientific data to support such claims. When taken in large quantities, gingko can also thin the blood, causing an increased risk of bleeding in response to surgery or trauma.

In the JAMA study, the effects of gingko on memory were studied in people older than 60 years (98 men and 132 women). Study volunteers were randomly assigned to take 120 mg of gingko biloba per day (115 volunteers) or placebo pills (115 volunteers). All study volunteers were then studied over a 6 week period with standard tests that measure memory capability. Baseline memory tests, performed at the beginning of the study, revealed no significant differences in memory function between the two groups of volunteers. At the end of 6 weeks, the study found no significant improvements in the group taking gingko with respect to learning, memory, attention, or concentration. These findings are consistent with most of the recent literature regarding gingko's effects on memory.


In the current journal Circulation, a study of 45 Finnish adults with stable coronary artery disease was performed to look at the effects of air pollution on heart function during exercise EKG studies. The 45 heart patients underwent a total of 342 exercise EKGs over a period of 6 months. During each exercise episode, particulate air pollution levels were measured and recorded. The study found that elevated concentrations of fine particulate pollutants in the air were associated with a greater than threefold risk of EKG signs of heart ischemia (inadequate oxygen delivery to the heart muscle). This study, therefore, suggests that, at least in patients with preexisting heart disease, the presence of high levels of fine particulate air pollution may significantly increase the risk of cardiac ischemia during periods of exercise. The metabolic demands of exercise may stress an already diseased heart, and the superimposed effects of air pollution, it would appear, may aggravate problems with cardiac function even further.


The current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) contains an analysis of past studies that looked at the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. To date, these are the only two gene mutations that have been linked with an increased risk of developing breast cancer. When first discovered, it was thought that more than 80% of women with either of these mutations would eventually develop breast cancer by 70 years of age. Subsequently, the increase in risk has been revised downward to 35-50% in a number by a number of studies. (These same gene mutations have also been linked with an increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancer as well.)

The JNCI study's analysis suggests that previous estimations of breast cancer risk due to these two gene mutations have probably been overestimated. The author of this study criticized previous BRCA1 and BRCA2 studies for not completely accounting for additional breast cancer risk factors, such that the estimated increase in the risk of developing breast cancer due solely to BRCA1 or BRCA2 is likely to have been overestimated. Because such prior studies preferentially looked at women from families with a high incidence of breast cancer, other potential risk factors were likely present but not appreciated. The recommendation is that future studies on the breast cancer impact of these two gene mutations take greater care in accounting for other coexisting breast cancer risk factors among study volunteers.

JWR contributor Dr. Robert A. Wascher is a senior research fellow in molecular & surgical oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. Comment by clicking here.


08/09/02: Botulinum Toxin & Post-Stroke Spasticity; Intestinal Hormone Kills Appetite; Bone Marrow Cells Improve Blood Flow in Vascular Disease; Effectiveness of Restraining Orders on Domestic Violence

08/02/02: Mammography Saves Lives!; Obesity & the Risk of Heart Failure; High Sugar Diets & the Risk of Colon Cancer; Abuse During Childhood & Possible Effects of Genes on Antisocial Behaviors

07/26/02: Cancer: Nature vs. Nurture; Cardiorespiratory Fitness & Inflammation; Kidney Transplants from Cadaver Donors; Aircraft Cabin Air Recirculation & the Common Cold

07/19/02: PCBs & the Gender of Babies; Breastfeeding & the Risk of Breast Cancer; More Bad News About Hormone replacement Therapy

07/12/02: A cancer surgeon's perspective on hormone replacement therapy

07/08/02: Hormone replacement therapy & the risk of disease; more good news about statins; antioxidant vitamins & disease prevention; more

06/28/02: Antioxidants & the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease; Effects of Exercise on the Hearts of Patients with Mild Hypertension; Statins reduce cardiac events following angioplasty; more

06/21/02: Sex & violence and Advertising: Do Advertisers Get What they Pay For?; Don't Drink the Water (or the Salsa Either!); Vasectomy & Prostate Cancer Risk; Update on Smoking & Disease

06/14/02: Young Men, Obesity & Heart Disease; Breastfeeding & Obesity; Irritable Bowel Syndrome & rectal pain threshold; more data on cox-2 inhibitors & cancer; more

06/07/02: New coronary artery stent reduces risk of restenosis; possible cause of Parkinson's Disease identified; more

05/31/02: New biological insights into obesity & weight loss; broccoli kills cancer-causing stomach bug; anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of heart attack

05/24/02: Molecular detection of tumor cells in the blood & prognosis; Cox-2 & breast/lung cancers; BRCA2 gene mutations & the risk of breast cancer; breast density & the risk of breast cancer

05/19/02: Moderate alcohol intake and blood sugar levels; more good news for tea drinkers; blood potassium levels & the risk of cardiovascular disease; ethnic differences in diabetic complications

05/10/02: Tea drinkers and the risk of death following heart attack; duration of breastfeeding & adult intelligence; abdominal aortic aneurysms: surgery or observation?

05/03/02: Risk of adverse drug reactions from newly released medications; preoperative beta-blockers may reduce heart bypass deaths; shape-shifting plastics may alter surgical practice; weight loss supplement may cause liver damage
04/26/02: Angry young men & risk of premature cardiovascular disease; stay-at-home dads & risk of cardiovascular disease; more on the effects of statins; dairy consumption and the risk of pre-diabetes; smallpox vaccine: good to the last drop?
04/19/02: Change your sex by drinking water?; Anti-inflammatory RXs may reduce growth of breast cancer cells; radiation treatment reduces repeat narrowing of bypass grafts
04/05/02: Fish & Omega-3 fatty acid consumption and cardiac health; news briefs
04/05/02: Can coffee reduce your risk of tooth decay?; exercise & blood pressure; a single high-fat meal reduces coronary artery function
04/01/02: Pre-diabetes: a newly defined category of health risk; teen television viewing and subsequent aggressive behavior; the benefits of strength training in the elderly; more ...
03/22/02: Bacteria, antibiotics & heart disease; mammograms: the debate continues; calcium & the risk of colon cancer ... and more
03/15/02: Mammography debate continues; statins & fracture risk; physical fitness & the risk of death; other intriguing findings
03/08/02: Blows to the chest & sudden cardiac death; air quality & the risk of lung cancer; tomatoes and your prostate
03/01/02: Diet & the risk of ovarian cancer; lifetime risk of developing high blood pressure; Osteoporosis prevention with a once-a-year injection?
02/26/02: The continuing controversy regarding screening mammography
02/22/02: Lowering body temperature after heart attack improves outcome; A silver lining for the chronically sleep-deprived?
02/15/02: Hormone replacement therapy & the risk of breast cancer; use it or lose it: Alzheimer's disease & cognitive stimulation; stress, divorce & death; child daycare, infections & parental guilt
02/08/02: Possible breakthrough in early cancer diagnosis; mammography: the controversy continues; CPR techniques revisited
02/01/02: Antibiotics in livestock feed & human disease; genetic detection of early colon cancer in the stool; genetic analysis of breast cancers may help decide treatment
01/25/02: Drug increases lifespan (if you're a fly...); workplace attitudes and smoking cessation; effects of inadequate sleep on surgeons
01/18/02: Lifelong effects of premature birth; smokers under the knife; aspirin and cardiovascular health
01/11/02: Estrogen levels in the blood & breast cancer risk; Heart attack: sex and survival; dangerous lettuce invaders
01/09/02: Cancer & aging: Two sides of the same coin?
01/04/02: Vitamin a & the risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women; ovarian cancer risk and oral contraceptives
12/28/01: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) detects coronary artery disease; new development in obesity research; adverse childhood experiences & the risk of suicide attempts
12/21/01: Vaccination of children controls hepatitis a in the community; a possible cure for sickle cell disease; leptin and the risk of heart attacks
12/14/01: Chernobyl and the Risk of Thyroid Cancer in hildren; children & obesity; gastroesophageal reflux disease update
12/07/01: Update on school shootings; new implantable heart-assist device approved for further evaluation; prevention of fungal infections in pre-term babies
11/30/01: Flu vaccination in asthmatics; low-tar cigarettes are not less harmful; beans and your heart
11/21/01: Modified smallpox vaccine may reduce risk of cervical cancer; New approach to breast cancer diagnosis; New non-invasive prenatal diagnostic test for down's syndrome
11/16/01: Cholesterol-lowering drugs reduce risk of heart attack; supplemental radiation therapy reduces risk of breast cancer recurrence; brains of women may answer age-old questions
11/09/01: Bio-warfare (redux); my gray matter is bigger than yours; mad elk disease?
11/02/01: Making sense of bio-warfare
10/26/01: The impact of mammography on deaths due to breast cancer; diet & exercise may slow cancer cell growth; antidepressants and the risk of heart disease
10/19/01: New insights into autism; the wiley appendix
10/12/01: More bad news about obesity links to other diseases…Hey dad, can I borrow the car keys?
10/05/01: California leads nation in reduction of tobacco-related disease; exercise as an antidepressant?
09/25/01: Advances in the detection of breast cancer; primary care physician awareness of peripheral arterial disease; arsenic in the water
09/17/01: In perspective
09/12/01: Genes may hold secret to long life; men and women: cognitive function in the elderly; physical activity, obesity and the risk of pancreatic cancer
09/05/01: English milk cows prefer Beethoven and Simon & Garfunkel over Bananarama; new prostate cancer prevention study: looking for a few good men; exercise & diet can help prevent diabetes
08/28/01: Arthritis drugs may be linked with increased risk of heart disease; errors in blood clotting tests can be fatal; infant soy formula not associated with reproductive side effects

© 2002, Dr. Robert A. Wascher